Next month, our eyes will turn once again to see what Judge James Redden has to say about dam management and salmon recovery on the mighty Columbia. Oral arguments will begin May 9 in a case that has divided the region over the best way to run the hydropower system in the Columbia River Basin while protecting threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
But the court case is beside the point, according to filmmaker Jim Norton. His Nature documentary Salmon: Running the Gauntlet takes a step back from the everyday politics of salmon recovery and looks more broadly at the natural history of the fish. It premiers on OPB at 8 p.m. Sunday.
In preparing for our early screening tonight, Norton told me Judge Redden won't decide what happens to salmon in the Columbia; That decision rests among much larger pool of people who live in the region and care about the future of salmon.
"Redden's not the be-all end-all," Norton said. "He's an accelerant. But if he decides the biological opinion is legal that doesn't mean it's good enough, and if he says it's not, Congress will find a way to bypass him."
In Norton's view (formed after spending about six years working on the film), salmon and dam management policies haven't changed enough as our understanding of the salmon life cycle has evolved.
His film takes a look at all the complex and expensive contortions managers throughout the basin are going through to improve fish survival. They're all well-meaning, he says, but it's time to reconsider whether they're going to save what really matters:
"There are no bad guys ... but when you pull out and look at things in context, the argument for doing what we're doing gets absurd. ... What will we be doing a hundred years from now? ... It's going to get increasingly more expensive and increasingly absurd."
At the same time, he says he sees the Columbia basin as the biggest opportunity for fish habitat restoration on the planet. The bottom line for him: People are doing too much for salmon at every stage of their life cycle, and we need to get out of the way.
"Abundance is the default in the Columbia basin," he said. "All we need to do is allow its expression. We forget that a lot."
The court case over whether the Columbia River hydropower system meets the legal standards of the Endangered Species Act raises all kinds of controversial questions:
- Are federal agencies spilling enough water over the dams to help juvenile fish make it out to sea?
- Should the four lower Snake River dams be removed to protect Idaho's salmon runs?
- Have dam managers done enough to restore spawning and rearing habitat to offset the impact of the dams and support salmon recovery?
- Do hatcheries help or hurt the efforts to recover of wild salmon runs?
But Norton and his film raises yet another: How much is really up to the judge and how much is up to us?
We'll begin a discussion of these questions after the film screening tonight at the Mission Theater (film starts at 7:30 p.m.; discussion starts at 8:30) and (I hope) continue it here on the blog.