Since the reelection of President George W. Bush in one of the most widely contested elections in U.S. history, fishery and river restoration activists have been regrouping and deciding how best to move forward.
The Bush administration distinguished itself for the damage its policies caused to salmon, steelhead and other fisheries during the past four years. Anglers and conservationists can expect to see similar challenges face us in the next four years.
Key events over the past four years include:
• The Klamath River fish kill of September 2002, where over 68,000 salmon died after the Department of Interior diverted river water to farmers at the expense of fish.
• High pre-spawning mortality - 181,709 salmon over the past three falls - on the lower American River due to low, warm water conditions caused by Bureau of Reclamation mismanagement of Folsom Dam.
• A series of administration-imposed rewriting of scientific reports to benefit agribusiness and industry at the expense of fish and wildlife. The most recent example was when higher-ups in the federal government ordered NOAA fisheries scientists to revise a biological opinion from “jeopardy” to “no jeopardy” on the dangers of increased Delta diversions to endangered fish.
The list could go on and on. However, what are the prospects for the years ahead?
“The outcome of Tuesday’s election will very likely intensify the challenges we all face protecting and restoring healthy, natural rivers,” said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. “If the past is any indication, we can expect the Bush administration and its allies in Congress to look the other way as our streams grow more polluted, to place rivers last in line for their own water, and to encourage the poorly planned sprawl development to make both of these problems so much worse.”
However, Wodder said there is cause for optimism. “During the past four years, local river and watershed organizations, individual activists, the science community and national groups -- the river movement -- have accomplished a lot despite the political climate in Washington and elsewhere.”
She cited successful battles to defeat attacks on the Clean Water Act, as well as the removal of over 110 dams in 20 states.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, believes the problems that California and Pacific Northwest fisheries have experienced over the past four years will be amplified.
“The results of the election aren’t good from the standpoint of our three main rivers, the Columbia, the Klamath and the Sacramento,” said Grader. “Each had its problems under the Bush administration and I expect them to get worse. Most people consider themselves pro-fish and for the environment, so bringing the issues of our fisheries into the public spotlight is our only hope.”
He said that fish activists should continue putting political pressure upon the National Marine Fisheries Service to convince them to back their biologists, rather than bending to political interference in writing biological opinions.
“De watering streams or continuing dam operations that harm fish is a big economic issue,” emphasized Grader. “We need to get the administration to realize that these fish have economic value.”
Craig Tucker, outreach director of Friends of the River, concurred that the election outcome makes the task of fish restoration more difficult on the federal level. “The Department of Interior plays a big role in issues that we’re working on, including Klamath Dam relicensing, renewal of the Central Valley contracts and the proposed enlargement of Shasta Dam,” said Tucker.
He forecasts that restoration efforts will increasingly focus on litigation. “In the past, we have used litigation as a last resort,” said Tucker. “With the reelection of the president, we can expect to rely more on litigation in our environmental battles.”
On the state level, Tucker is more optimistic, since Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed all three bills that FOR sponsored. This legislation includes Senator Wes Chesbro’s bill strengthening the environmental protections for California's Wild & Scenic Rivers ( SB 904); Senator Mike Machado’s Delta Water Use bill (SB 1155) mandating the state Department of Water Resources to develop a plan to meet water quality standards for the Bay Delta estuary; and a bill requiring Sacramento and other cities to use water meters.
In the coming years, Tucker said FOR is researching the possibility of state “wild and scenic” status being extended to Cache Creek, the North Fork of the Stanislaus and the Clavey River.
Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California, forecasts that we will see increasing attempts to remove environmental protections for fish and wildlife with four more years of the Bush administration.
“My feeling is that the administration won’t do a thing to protect the environment and natural resources,” said Strickland. “For this reason, it is crucial that fishermen and the environmental groups work together for clean air and clean water. We need to look at the whole resource, not just trees and fish.”
On the state level, Strickland urged environmental and fish groups to make sure that all diversions are properly screened to prevent the entrapment of juvenile salmon and steelhead. He also believes that to promote water conservation, state legislation requiring water meters for agricultural users should be considered.
The effectiveness of litigation as a tool for fish restoration was demonstrated by recent court victories by the Hoopa Valley Tribe in their decades-long struggle to restore the Trinity River. The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on November 5 rejected a petition by the Westlands Water District and the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) to prolong the Trinity River litigation with a rehearing.
“This is yet another hard-fought legal battle in our efforts to save the Trinity River,” said Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “We are pleased that the court has upheld its decision because continued litigation will only cause undue delays with the restoration of the river.”
“The court system is where the water wars are fought,” added Billy Colegrove, vice-chair of the tribe. “Maybe the farmers will see the light at the end of the tunnel and see that restoration is good for them as well as the fish.”
We face many challenges in the coming four years to restore and enhance our salmon, steelhead and other fisheries. That is why it so crucial that recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, Indian tribes, environmental groups and small farmers put aside our differences to work for the common cause of the fish and the environment.
Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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