Salmon wars return to Portland courtroom: Can at-risk fish and hydroelectric dams coexist?
For the past eight years, the champion of Northwest wild salmon and steelhead has been an 82-year-old judge with a sharp pen and a willingness to use it.
To date, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden has sunk two plans the federal government argued would allow it to operate hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin without jeopardizing the region's signature fish.
In Portland on Monday, he holds what could be his last hearing in the salmon case, a final discussion of the government's third shot at a 10-year plan. He'll have to cut through the fog of fish numbers before handing down a decision with consequences for electricity ratepayers and farmers in four states.
Helped by favorable ocean conditions and fishing restrictions, the numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia have surged since 2001. Returns -- mostly hatchery fish -- hit post-dam-building highs for much of the past decade at Bonneville Dam, the first on an upstream journey that can run over eight dams and more than 900 miles.
Redden's focus is narrower: the seven endangered or threatened wild runs that pass Bonneville, including 77 smaller populations native to tributaries in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. Their returns are also up sharply in the past decade, a promising sign after stark declines in the 1990s.
But a closer look at the numbers shows key runs remain perilously low -- and well below minimum benchmarks for removing them from the endangered species list.
Habitat restoration soars on Columbia River, but fish benefits are murky
CHINOOK, Wash. -- This winter, restoration workers punched a 12-foot concrete culvert through the rock rip-rap that lines the Columbia River near the ocean and waited for fish to hit wetlands walled off for a century.
They didn't have to wait long.
On March 15, the first check, biologists counted 20 juvenile salmon. On April 29, the count totaled 723, mostly chinook and chum.
That's the kind of success story operators of the Columbia basin's federal hydropower dams need a whole lot more of. Their 10-year dam operations plan, under the skeptical eye of U.S. District Judge James A. Redden, banks heavily on habitat improvements to bolster seven threatened runs of wild salmon and steelhead that begin life above Bonneville Dam.
It's likely the biggest restoration effort in the nation, from the Columbia's mouth to tributaries deep into eastern Oregon, Idaho and Washington. If it works, it could help lift the fish off the endangered species list, dim the spotlight on dams and reduce demands for Snake River dam removal.
But translating the effort into hard fish survival numbers that will satisfy the court is another story.