From: Buck Parker, Earthjustice
Published August 4, 2005 12:00 AM

'The Columbia” A River That Died and Was Reborn as Money'

“The Columbia” a river that died and was reborn as money.” Historian Donald Worster’s bleak yet apt observation captures the transformation of the Columbia and Snake River system into an economic engine whose purpose is to provide commodities—water, transportation, flood control and hydroelectricity. As the Columbia was plugged, bifurcated, diverted and polluted in the name of one commodity or another, no one thought much about the health of the ecosystem that was being exploited. Although transformation of the river took only 75 years, it has brought the Columbia ecosystem to the brink of death-without-rebirth unless things change.


The Columbia River Basin is a 250,000 square mile watershed that once connected the Pacific to the Northern Rockies with a 1,200 mile-long ribbon of free-flowing water. Beginning with the massive “reclamation” projects of the 1930s, the watershed that formerly produced more salmon than any other on earth (records show that almost 16 million fish once returned to the Columbia each year) has become a chain of reservoirs with dams in between — 14 major ones on the main Snake and Columbia alone ” the most upstream on each river completely blocking passage to over half of the salmon habitat that was once reached by these fish. So those dams can keep fulfilling their power and navigation purposes, the government has managed the Columbia so that wild salmon are headed for extinction. While some have benefited from that single-minded approach, tribes, fishermen and fishing communities have paid the price.


Today salmon runs have dwindled to about 2.5 million fish. And most of those are now raised in hatchery tanks because so little habitat is left for wild fish. Eight populations of salmon and four populations of steelhead trout in the Columbia Basin are acknowledged to be in danger of becoming extinct. It is clear that the survival of Columbia salmon, the health of the river their survival would symbolize, and the Northwest way of life that salmon support is riding on whether the Columbia will be managed in accordance with the Endangered Species Act rather than for the benefit of the Bonneville Power Administration, barge owners, and agribusiness.


Earthjustice has been at the forefront of the effort to restore the Columbia. In almost 20 years, Earthjustice has brought lawsuits that secured ESA protection for salmon and steelhead, forced federal agencies to examine the harms of business-as-usual commodity production, stopped ill-advised dredging, and fought for the cooler, cleaner water salmon need to survive. Earthjustice and our clients have accomplished a great deal, but we still have much left to do. And in the current political climate, it’s clear that litigation must remain the driving force behind the kind of change that’s necessary to keep wild salmon alive.


Let me give you a recent example. In May, Earthjustice won a courtroom victory that overturned the Bush administration’s latest plan for Columbia and Snake River salmon. The biological analysis that was claimed to justify the plan was lambasted late last year by more than 250 scientists as inadequate; even so, the government refused to budge. So we sued. Judge James Redden rejected the plan, which took as its fundamental premise that we could not do without even one dam on the Columbia and Snake Rivers no matter how out-dated or ineffective it might be and no matter how harmful to salmon and steelhead. In fact, the plan treated the dams as part of the “environmental baseline,” the conditions salmon would just have to get used to. That bit of sophistry, manufactured to excuse the government’s steadfast unwillingness to give salmon the same importance given to commodity production, fared no better than the 2003 salmon plan, which we also overturned in the same Oregon district court two years ago. So a new plan must be developed, and the existence of Columbia dams cannot be taken for granted in it.


The latest ruling is one more step toward restoring healthy runs of wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers ” which is actually good news for business. From the Pacific inland to Idaho, healthy salmon support a healthy economy. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations estimates that restoring salmon runs would net the region 25,000 extra family-wage jobs and an additional $500 million in commercial fishing revenue each year. A recent study of Idaho’s economy estimated that a revived sport fishery for salmon could bring an equal amount to communities ” many of them small and isolated ” in that state.


We’ve been at this a long time, and we’ll be at it for a long time to come. Staying power is everything if we’re going to change some of the ill-advised “improvements” imposed on the Columbia. In fact, you may still be hearing about Earthjustice cases over the Columbia or Snake Rivers in 2015, not because we aren’t succeeding but because that’s what it may take. Along the way, we hope you will also hear about changes in river operations, improved conditions for salmon, and, of course, their return to health ” along with the economy and way of life they support.


Vawter "Buck" Parker joined Earthjustice (then the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) as an attorney in 1980 and became the Executive Director in 1998. www.earthjustice.org


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