The Columbia River estuary is the beating heart of a 258,000-square-mile watershed. It has long been neglected, treated like a useless vacant lot instead of as a nursery. A proposed federal plan promises to correct this mistake. The plan, issued last week, marries Oregon and Washington goals for the lower Columbia.

The tidally influenced and unobstructed estuary – and the rivers and creeks that flow into it – are getting more and more attention as a crucial part of the salmon-recovery equation. This is worth supporting in a broad sense, but also deserves close attention since citizens will be asked to participate and also might find our interests impacted in various ways.

It’s important to note at the outset that there apparently is little interest among state and federal agencies in dictating solutions to local people. There are no new regulations. Nor is there ever truly enough money for habitat restoration or other initiatives, though the Bonneville Power Administration and other major entities do continue to have significant funds to tap.

Public involvement can help ensure that funds aren’t squandered in the wake of NOAA Fisheries’ release this month of its proposed Endangered Species Act recovery plan for lower Columbia salmon and steelhead. A comment period ends July 16. Details are available at

The estuary’s importance to salmon was long misunderstood. At the start of their life cycle, it was incorrectly believed that migrating juveniles exited the river almost immediately. Returning adults were also seen as having little use for the estuary or the streams that empty into it. In reality, both juveniles and adults need this enormous amount of habitat. We are only now really beginning to comprehend how big a mess we’ve made of it during two centuries of unrestrained development and experimentation.

The federal plan wraps together local Oregon and Washington recovery documents for the estuary, plus one for the White Salmon River sub-basin, which was prepared by NOAA. To achieve everything currently in mind will cost an estimated $2.1 billion over the next 25 years, of which $614 million might be spent within five years. This is a lot of dough – but the BPA has shown its ability to raise it by spending billions already on salmon in the past couple decades.

The list of contemplated actions is far too extensive to summarize here, involving everything from controlling bird predation on smolts to modifying tide gates and working with landowners to enhance riparian areas. “Success will depend on effective programs as well as a dedicated commitment to salmon recovery across a broad section of society,” according to the federal plan.

If the feds are serious about this plan, there needs to be much more outreach to the public. Citizen buy-in is essential to success.

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