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News from the Front #82: 4/8/05

Cutting Off Irrigators Again


            "Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel"  Jesus Christ (Matthew 23:24)

The marine mammal population has now exploded to the point where California sea lions have moved 150 miles up the Columbia River to take up residence in and below the adult fish ladder at Bonneville Dam, a development that may cause as much damage to upriver salmon and steelhead runs as all the dams along the river combined.  Since the sea lions showed up, visitors to the fish ladder viewing room often see sea lions, not salmon:.  

Not a peep has been heard about these developments from the ostensible heros of the salmon.  Environmentalists, backed by the biggest Northwest Indian Tribes, have bigger fish to fry.  They are taking aim at farmers again this summer, on an even larger scale than their successful 2001 assault on the Klamath Basin.  

On March 21, 2005, the environmentalists filed a new lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and a motion for a preliminary injunction.  In their motion, they ask Judge James Redden of the United States District Court for the District of Oregon to enter "modest" relief that would increase the water velocity of the Columbia and Snake Rivers by 10% this summer.

Behind the scenes, Oregon's Governor has urged the federal agencies achieve these velocity targets by lowering the water levels in the reservoirs, particularly behind John Day Dam.  The idea is that with lower reservoir levels, the cross-sectional area of the reservoir is smaller, and the water moves through the reservoir faster.  Testimony from fish fanatics suggest that the John Day Pool could be lowered roughly 7 feet from "minimum irrigation pool" to "minimum operation pool".

Fish fanatics imagine that fish are like bits of flotsam, which can be “flushed” down the river, and they imagine that flushing the fish down the river faster means fewer die in the river.  (The fact that they would then die downstream instead, for no net benefit, is beyond their comprehension.)  In fact, roughly half of the summer-migrating smolts stop along the way and overwinter in the reservoirs, and the National Marine Fisheries Service says that lowering the reservoir will destroy the shallow-water habitat that the remaining fish favor, including large wildlife refuges along the river.  In all likelihood, shrinking the reservoirs (concentrating more predators in less space) will make things worse for the fish.

It will certainly make things worse for the farmers along the John Day Pool, who conduct some of the most productive and water-efficient irrigated farming in the world.  They stand to lose orchards, vineyards, and fields full of everything from wheat to vegetables.  A single year's loss of production would be worth almost $500,000,000 dollars in Regional income, not including the long-term effects of killing off all the farmers who weren’t well capitalized enough to suffer a whole year’s loss.  All Columbia River barge shipping would also have to shut down for the summer.

The environmentalists and Tribes generously allow that they are willing to have the Government go out and raise our electric rates enough to buy so much water from Canada that the whole Columbia River can be run 10% faster without drawing down the reservoirs.  That’s a lot of water, and no one knows if it is for sale, although at least if we buy the water it will generate some additional electricity to offset the cost.

The environmentalists and Tribes are also asking the Court to have the Government to stop generating power at five dams, another guaranteed shock to your electric bill.  Ironically, this will probably kill fish too, both from excessive spill levels and because if the turbines aren't running, the juvenile fish can’t be collected to transport them downstream around the dams.   

With all these fundamental factual defects in the case of the environmentalists and Tribes, it is easy to conclude that the whole fight is not about saving fish at all, particularly when those same fish migrating downstream in the summer (fall chinook) are then killed at a harvest rate of roughly 50% when they return as adults.  When it comes to fishing seasons, suddenly the same fish fanatics eager to put the farmers out of business because somewhere, somehow, a fish or two might be saved aren't interested in saving fish at all.  If the Tribes were really interested in saving fish, they would assert their Native American rights to kill sea lions and sell sea lion skins; no one else can, because the sea lions are protected by Federal law.  But they and the environmentalists strain at the gnat of farming impacts, and swallow the sea lions.

There is a serious risk that the Court will ignore the factual defects in the case of the  environmentalists and Tribes.  After all, when the farmers in the Klamath Basin told the Court that the fish fanatics were taking their water to keep Upper Klamath Lake levels high, to prevent fish kills, and all the fish kills had happened at those higher levels, the Court ignored them.  The Court was much more impressed with how the "Klamath and Yurok Tribes rely on the fish as a vital component of the Tribes' cultures, traditions, and economic vitality".  Of course in that case, the Federal government sided with the environmentalists and Tribes.  This time, they are on the same side as the farmers.  That should help.

Again we see a textbook example of what happens in the latter stages of the decay of a Republic, as public policy is perverted to allow organized criminals to loot the citizenry.  As Judge Redden told the parties a month ago, what "happened here, we all know, is that the Senate rejected the funds" the environmentalists and Tribes had tried to pry loose with the last round of litigation.  They are on the warpath together to pry the money loose again, and the farmers are just collateral damage.  It could be a long, hot summer.

© James Buchal, April 8, 2005

You have permission to reprint this article, and are encouraged to do so. The sooner people figure out what's going on, the quicker we'll have more fish in the rivers.

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