Recent moves to address water temperatures and other forms of pollution souring Pacific Northwest rivers are both worthy and worrisome.
Worthy because salmon and interrelated species need all the help they can get. Worrisome because lawsuits and top-down legislation are clumsy ways to address highly complex problems.
Convoluted knots of heat and chemical contamination in the Columbia River system are familiar to everyone who has followed salmon-restoration controversies over the past 30 or 40 years. Much progress has been made in curbing traditional forms of pollution from major sources like manufacturing, agriculture and municipal sewage, while at the same time we have learned more about how closely attuned aquatic species are to even minuscule traces of some chemicals.
Heat is less often recognized by non-experts as a form of pollution. But anything that warms seawater or rivers beyond fairly narrow limits can make life difficult or impossible for species accustomed to cold water. When it comes to salmon, heat not only harms their own biological processes, but also degrades the food web on which they rely.
Early in December, Columbia Riverkeeper sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleging violations of federal Clean Water Act provisions relating to heat and toxins associated with four large dams and reservoirs east of Portland on the Columbia. Without delving into the details of the lawsuit’s claims and the Corps’ initial responses, it’s obvious that a federal agency should be held to the highest standards when it comes to managing a great river.
But it’s also obvious that the Corps faces a difficult — and perhaps nearly insurmountable — challenge in limiting heat buildup in the vast pools of slow-moving water impounded behind dams. This was a daunting task before our planet started warming up. Keeping this water cold enough for salmon is likely to become harder with each passing year. This is much complicated by the fact that the river is legally required to serve a variety of other functions — everything from power generation and irrigation to being a transportation canal between ports from its mouth to Idaho.
This isn’t to say that ways can’t be found to keep migration corridors cold enough for salmon, but any such answers are likely to require expertise and legal power beyond the capacity of a federal judge and arguing lawyers.
Water temperatures are also at the heart of new legislation proposed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee that would require a wider swath of protective trees and other vegetation along thousands of miles of creeks and rivers. This leafy cover, coupled with large woody debris in water channels, fulfills essential functions in habitat — shade, protection from predators, water filtration, prey production, flood and silt control, and on and on.
Protecting these riparian zones is another salmon-restoration goal that has been around for decades, and which has been previously fought over. Although it’s safe to surmise most rural landowners in the Pacific Northwest are pro-salmon, stream setbacks have the effect of severely limiting how that land can be used. Weyerhaeuser and similarly situated forestry giants can manage to work around such limits. Family foresters, of whom there are many, can suffer crippling blows to assets built up by decades of careful stewardship of relatively small acreages.
Yes, as a society we must try harder all the time to find ways to mitigate for climate change and habitat loss. We who live in and love today’s Pacific Northwest are the beneficiaries of decades of development that provided employment and affordable electricity to our ancestors. We owe a corresponding obligation to pass well-functioning lands and waters along to our children.
At the same time, although lawsuits can be useful, they are a wasteful and blunt tool — too often better at fundraising and attention-getting than at identifying workable solutions. And legislation designed by an urban governor has the same flaws, unless it is perfected in the crucible of political give and take.
Bottom line: The Corps must continue finding better ways to protect and enhance the Columbia, something that may require congressional action to adjust its mission. And smaller riparian areas probably do need better setbacks in light of a changing environment, but the costs of such enhancements shouldn’t be put on the backs of family forest owners.