WASHINGTON — With Idaho Republican Larry Craig weakened by a sex scandal and expected to depart from the Senate, Democrats will have more say than ever about the future of Northwest salmon and dams.
Craig, who has been removed from leadership posts on the Appropriations and Energy committees, is known as one the most powerful voices in Congress on behalf of the timber and power industries. Environmentalists have fought Craig for years on issues from endangered salmon to public land grazing.
Now Senate Democrats, exercising their slim majority, have waded into two contentious issues — both related to Snake River salmon.
First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked federal regulators to require passage for salmon and steelhead for relicensing of the Hells Canyon Complex, a series of dams on the Snake River between Oregon and Idaho.
Reid says the passage would allow salmon to return to their historic spawning grounds in northern Nevada, where the fish used to run thick nearly a century ago.
Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has asked her colleagues to undo Craig's bid to use a federal spending bill to dictate water flow for Snake River fish.
Salmon advocates were thrilled at the actions of the two western Democrats, which they say could go a long way to protect and restore salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin, which spans Idaho, Washington state, Oregon and Wyoming.
"The only way we protect this fish and ensure they don't go extinct is if folks stand up now and take some leadership on these issues. I think that's what Senator Reid is doing and for that matter Senator Cantwell too," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, an advocacy group.
Under language inserted by Craig this summer, the Interior Department would be directed to implement "without further delay" a controversial Bush administration biological opinion on the Upper Snake River issued in 2005.
U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled last year that the opinion did not do enough to promote recovery of threatened salmon, violating the Endangered Species Act. He ordered federal officials to submit a new salmon recovery plan by the end of October.
Salmon advocates say Craig's language would nullify Redden's ruling and direct officials to rely on a discredited policy that does not provide enough water to allow salmon to thrive and shifts the burden for recovery of the threatened fish to Oregon and Washington state.
Enter Cantwell. In a Sept. 19 letter to fellow Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Interior subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations panel, Cantwell said Craig's action could "undermine" the ongoing planning process for salmon, as well as disrupt a judicial order.
"In addition, it could further threaten salmon in the Columbia-Snake River Basin, and the communities that depend on them, by delaying the development of a legally valid" policy, Cantwell wrote.
She asked for Feinstein's help in "removing this controversial and unnecessary language" from the federal spending bill before it is approved by the Senate.
"It's important that we get the salmon recovery plan right," Cantwell said. "We need to ensure that this independent process stays on track and is not hijacked by politics along the way."
Reid was similarly forceful in his letter to federal energy regulators mulling a plan to relicense the three-dam Hells Canyon Complex, which produces more than half of Idaho Power's hydroelectric energy.
When the dams were constructed, they blocked salmon and steelhead from reaching their spawning grounds in southern Idaho, eastern Oregon and northern Nevada, Reid wrote in an Aug. 27 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"I ask that as you proceed with this relicensing effort that you seize upon this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make it possible for these great and endangered species to return to their historical spawning grounds in Nevada," he wrote.
Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, accused Cantwell and Reid of meddling in Idaho issues.
"Basically the bottom line is Larry Craig is out to protect Idaho water," Whiting said, adding that Craig believes that the 2005 opinion rejected by the court is one that will "balance all the interests of water issues in the region, for irrigation, power use and for salmon."
Democrats control both chambers of Congress "and I'm sure they are looking for opportunities to get their way," Whiting added. "Whether they are taking advantage of Senator Craig's current state, I don't know."
Craig is expected to remain as Idaho's senior senator at least until a Minnesota judge rules on his effort to withdraw a guilty plea in a men's room sex sting.
As long as he is in office, Craig "will represent Idaho's interests," Whiting said. "Natural resource issues and salmon and water are things he's worked at for 27 years."
Whiting questioned why Reid would inject himself into the relicensing of power plants that serve Idaho and eastern Oregon.
Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said Reid wants to "make sure one of Nevada's most important native species can return to its native spawning grounds."
FERC Chairman Joseph Kelliher told Reid the commission has issued a final environmental impact statement, but has yet to take up the application for dam license renewal. Reid's concerns will be considered, he said.
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