Even though the plan to manage the Columbia and Snake rivers continues in flux, things are improving for the fish and people who depend on the two waterways.
On the fish side, salmon and steelhead are returning to the two rivers in record numbers.
In August, the NW Fishletter reported that the 2009 Snake River sockeye salmon run is the largest in 47 years. Returns of adult steelhead are setting daily records with more than 400,000 expected this year.
“Big expectations are also riding on this year’s coho run, which is projected to show up in the 700,000-fish range,” NW Fishletter reports. “If the coho run materializes as expected, this year’s return could be one of the best in the last 30 years.”
Columbia Basin harvest managers also expect about 20 percent more fall chinook to return in 2009 than last year, when nearly 450,000 made it back to the river. That puts this year’s projection firmly in line with the average return over the past 10 years. It also continues an upward trend from the 219,000-fish return in 2007.
Harvest managers say upriver stocks will make up more than half this year’s run to the mouth of the Columbia River, including a return of 6,600 wild fish in the Snake River this fall. That is important because many of those fish will make it to the Hanford Reach and upper Snake River for natural spawning, which is a primary goal.
That’s good news for the region, since the stock is listed for Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection. The fish are doing much better than in the 1990s due to improved ocean conditions, better stream flow management, increased habitat protection and a hatchery supplementation program.
On the people side, the good news will hopefully slow or end the costly court fights that have seen taxpayers and utility customers spend millions litigating what is best for fish.
Hopefully, the recent developments will also provide more certainty for the farmers, wine grape growers, recreationists, communities, barge lines, shippers and thousands of people who depend on both rivers. They have been on pins and needles for the last 30 years as billions have been spent to develop the management plan for the Columbian and Snake rivers known as the Biological Opinion (BiOp).
The good news is President Obama endorses the BiOp, a $10 billion plan developed during the Bush administration, to further improve salmon runs over the next decade.
For Washington state, the news is even better. The Obama Administration handed Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire an additional $40.5 million to improve salmon habitat on the north side of the Columbia River. Meanwhile, her fellow Democrat Gov. Ted Kulongoski is left empty handed because Oregon is suing to invalidate the plan.
While the BiOp has strong support from Gov. Chris Gregoire and many members of our congressional delegation, its fate largely rests with the federal courts. Portland federal Judge James Redden is suggesting improving habitat in the estuary so all oceangoing fish make the transition from fresh water to salt water.
The only discouraging news is Redden also wants to keep potential breaching of the four lower Snake River dams in south central Washington on the table. Gregoire, along with most major elected officials in the Northwest, opposes breaching, but Kulongoski and former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber continue to push for removal. Meanwhile, Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott has again introduced legislation to study that possibility.
Gregoire is on target when she says, “It’s time to get out of the courtroom and into the streams.” Washington Congressman Doc Hastings, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees endangered fish recovery and federal hydropower dams, is doing the right thing to kill any dam breaching bill in Congress.