Federal Judge James Redden once again demonstrates that he is chief of the "Reality Police." On Tuesday he rejected weak-kneed Columbia salmon-recovery plans, for the third time. Reality is that the federal hydropower system is broadly incompatible with thriving salmon runs. If we want both dams and salmon, the nation must commit itself to enhancing conditions for fish survival in every effective way.
Despite the best efforts by salmon supporters in Astoria and elsewhere, fish passage and habitat were afterthoughts during the 20th century campaign to tame and monetize the Columbia-Snake watershed. This predictably led to salmon species descending toward extinction, which in turn led to Endangered Species Act listings. Since then, billions of dollars have been spent.
However, as Redden has frequently observed and reiterated Tuesday, all that has been done thus far still leaves salmon dangerously exposed to disaster. Commenting on the decision, Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said "the federal government has spent nearly 20 years spending enormous sums of money foolishly by doing all the wrong stuff."
Demanding a new recovery plan by Jan. 1, 2014, Redden wants it to include overt consideration of "more aggressive action," with nothing left off the table - including dam removals, drawing down reservoirs and leaving more water flowing naturally.
To avoid taking these steps that could cut into industrial uses of water for electricity, irrigation and transportation, NOAA Fisheries and others have placed a big bet on the effectiveness of restoring habitat. This is particularly the plan in the relatively unobstructed lower Columbia, where a wetland-restoration project near Fort Columbia State Park is a recent example.
But habitat recovery is running behind schedule and is neither well planned nor adequately funded. As Redden noted in Tuesday's decision, "Federal defendants do not know what exactly will be needed to avoid jeopardy (of wild fish runs) beyond 2013, or whether those unknown actions are feasible and effective, but they promise to identify and implement something. This is neither a reasonable, nor a prudent, course of action."
By not proactively designing an action plan for 2014 and beyond, the government was trying to just get by. For one thing, the heroic Redden is nearly to the end of his time on the bench. Agencies and dam supporters will not mourn his complete retirement.
Redden is, however, totally honest and correct. Salmon recovery cannot be left to drift along, subject to the whims of agencies anxious to avoid stepping on congressional and industrial toes.