Obama Administration Issues Final Columbia River Salmon Plan

Seigning Salmon In The Columbia River, Circa 1914

The federal government has issued its final program for restoring endangered salmon on the Columbia River -- a plan that will have substantial impact on the rights and livelihood of the Tribes that comprise the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The administration’s revised plan has been updated to reflect new scientific studies and incorporate a flexible "adaptive management" strategy for quick implementation of stronger protective measures if needed. Officials hope that will be sufficient to prevent another rejection of its plans by the federal court overseeing the matter. "While much attention has focused on the courtroom, the region should be proud of what the federal government, states, Tribes and communities together have accomplished for fish," the agencies said in a statement releasing the opinion. "Last year alone, 9,609 miles of wetland habitat were protected and 244 miles of streams were reopened to fish. We've made much progress, and completion of this legal process now prepares us to make much more."

Conservationists had hoped the plan would be much bolder, with less emphasis on hatchery fish and stronger attention to the possibility of breaching dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington that cut off salmon from miles of pristine potential habitat.  The primary argument against the removal of dams is the negative impact on electricity generation, since the Northwest receives a significant portion of its power from hydroelectric sources.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is comprised of the fish and wildlife committees of the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes. The Tribes have treaty-guaranteed fishing rights and management authority in their traditional fishing areas.
 

Tribes Sue To Improve Fish Habitat

Culvert for Fish Passage (ADF&G)

In a landmark 1974 ruling, U.S. District Judge George Boldt ruled Tribes located near Puget Sound in Washington State hold treaty rights to half the region's fish resources. Thirty-five years later, another federal judge is presiding over a Tribal lawsuit to enforce the state's obligation to actively protect fish habitat. "The judge has already found that there's a treaty right to protect fish habitat," said Robert Anderson, director of the University of Washington's Native American Law Center. The question now is "how far the federal courts are willing to go to compel that result."

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled in 2007 that treaty rights required the state to take action to enhance salmon runs and fish habitat. He urged the state and Tribes to work together on solutions, but negotiations proved fruitless. More than 1,000 culverts between the Columbia River and British Columbia, most of them owned by the Washington Department of Transportation, are presently blocking or limiting access by fish to hundreds of miles of streams. The cost to implement repairs and provide fish with a smooth and unobstructed water flow may exceed $1.5 billion.

"The problem is the cost is just huge," Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said. "We already don't have enough money to maintain and preserve our existing highway system." The Tribes want the culverts fixed within two decades, but state lawyers say that would cost $165 million every two years — 10 times what the state spends fixing culverts now. The state's alternative plans wouldn't likely change the costs, but the work would take 50 or more years to complete.