There is a worrisome trend about water and the
West that may soon hit close to home: Judges are
throwing out Bush administration plans to "restore"
endangered fish populations because the plans flunk
the test of sound, defensible science.
One case involves the Columbia and Snake rivers,
which once had the largest salmon runs of any
Pacific streams. A federal judge has tossed out the
administration's recovery plan for the salmon.
Another concerns the Klamath River of Oregon and
California. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
has ordered the administration to provide additional
flows for fish above and beyond its recovery plan.
Meanwhile, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a
judge has yet to rule on a challenge to a new
federal water operations plan. Don't be shocked if
its science (it underwent a rather infamous
rewriting) fails to pass muster as well.
Regardless of your favorite river constituent -
whether it is the farmer who depends on a pump or a
steelhead that depends on a cold, reliable flow - it
is never good news when the courts are rejecting
management plans. It is a sign that something
unsustainable is happening, and that government has
yet to confront some extremely tough choices.
In the case of the Columbia and Snake rivers, the
judge is casting considerable doubt on the notion
that it is feasible to prevent the extinction of
salmon and steelhead species without a dramatic
change to four dams, either by breaching them or
curtailing hydropower production.
On the Klamath, the judicial skepticism has to do
with some fuzzy commitments to provide adequate
flows for fish.
In the Delta, the unanswered question is whether
it is justifiable to pump more freshwater from the
estuary at a time when key species (smelt and shad)
are crashing to record low populations.
There is a temptation for any administration to
defer to the next president some tough water
decisions. That is what President Clinton did on the
Columbia and Snake rivers. And while the
environmental groups that are challenging the Bush
administration are undoubtedly happy with the court
decisions, these groups need to reach out to their
adversaries (namely agriculture and this
administration) to find workable long-term
solutions. Fights and court battles are signs that
all interests are losing.