Three federal agencies that manage and market electricity from the Columbia and Snake river federal dams continue to have a conversation with residents of the Pacific Northwest about the future of the dams and endangered salmon.
More than 2,000 people have attended meetings where they’ve shared what they think should be the scope of an environmental review ordered in May by U.S. Judge Michael Simon. Despite many improvements, the judge and scientists say more needs to be done to ensure future sustainable populations of wild salmon.
But Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, doesn’t want to have that conversation or the environmental review. He and his group have asked the Trump transition team either to intervene directly or to convene the Endangered Species Committee, a little-used panel that he says could decide that the federal agencies status quo plan is enough.
The committee is commonly known as the God Squad, because it can play God and allow an endangered species to go extinct. The committee and its exemption process was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1978.
Federal agencies under the act must ensure that its actions won’t cause species to go extinct. To grant an exemption, the God Squad must find there are no reasonable and prudent alternatives; must determine that the benefits of the exemption outweigh alternatives; and that the agencies had not already made an irreversible commitment of resources.
This has proved to be a high bar. In 1992, the Bureau of Land Management took timber sales it planned in Oregon old-growth forest to the God Squad for a ruling because protections for the spotted owl had stopped the sales.
The panel exempted 13 of 44 timber sales, but told the BLM it first had to develop a scientifically sound plan for protecting the owl. The agency was back to square one.
Today, Olsen believes the God Squad would rule differently on the Northwest salmon than have three federal judges in five major decisions over 23 years. He wants someone to stop the federal agencies from doing the environmental review.
“It is driven by a biased court decision in what has become a salmon-recovery industry over the last 20 years,” Olsen said. “It is not how the Endangered Species Act was meant to be used.”
Whether he likes it or not, the judges have ruled exactly as the 1973 Endangered Species Act was meant to be used. The federal government has no alternative, short of triggering the God Squad, than to do what it can to keep species from going extinct.
Olsen appears to understand that fact and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration might this time propose to do what it takes to preserve Idaho’s wild salmon. That might include alternatives such as increasing the amount of water “spilled” over the dams to aid migrating fish. Or it might mean drawing down one or more reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
What Olsen and his members fear the most is the possibility that breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River could be the alternative the review now under way says is “reasonable and prudent.”
That would affect 13 corporate farmers that pump irrigation water from the reservoir behind Ice Harbor Dam. The last review in 1999 predicted that it would cost more than $150 million to extend the intake pipes to the lower river level —and far less if the government simply bought out the farmers.
I visited one of those farmers, Ralph Broetje, who in 1999 had transformed the rolling sagebrush hills overlooking the Snake River into 4,000 acres of verdant apple and cherry orchards. He’d turned the water he pumps out of the reservoir behind Ice Harbor Dam into a farm worker’s paradise, called Vista Hermosa, complete with clean, modern homes, a mission-style church, a Christian school and a youth ranch for troubled teens.
At the time, about 37,000 total acres were being irrigated. Today, Olsen said, the practice of “water-spreading” — Washington state allows farmers to use conserved water to irrigate more acres — has grown the farmland to 60,000 acres, worth about $13,000 an acre.
That’s a lot or acres and money. But no one in the past 20 years has suggested that these farmers be bought out. Salmon advocates since 1999 have repeatedly said they support finding a way for farmers to pump water from a free-flowing Snake to meet their needs.
From what experts are learning from the many new technologies under development to provide water in increasingly dry places like California and the Southwest, there ought to be alternatives that work in the Northwest. Olsen is completely skeptical.
I’m skeptical that the God Squad would give Olsen what he wants: A ruling that lets federal agencies do no more than they do now, even if it means some of Idaho’s salmon would be doomed to extinction. I don’t think Congress would do that either. The spotted owl was derided by industry critics as a trumped-up environmentalist device to stop economic activity. Nobody in the Northwest believes that about salmon and steelhead.
If Olson wants to make the issue about the four Lower Snake River dams versus Idaho salmon, I suspect salmon advocates welcome framing the debate that way.