Document Type


Publication Title

Environmental Law

Journal Abbreviation

Env't L.


The saga of Columbia Basin salmon recovery is one of the foremost natural resource restoration efforts in the United States over the last quarter-century. Although development of the world's largest integrated hydroelectric system crippled the Columbia's salmon runs, Congress declared in 1980 that salmon and hydropower were to become co-equals in the management of Columbia Basin dams. That declaration did not prevent the listing of most Columbia Basin salmon runs under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), however. Widely perceived as a Draconian, economically insensitive statute, the ESA has proved extremely pliable in the case of Columbia Basin salmon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency charged with implementing the statute in the case of salmon, consistently chose to exercise its discretion to largely preserve status quo hydropower and navigation operations. While this rather remarkable development has apparently escaped the attention of congressional reformers attempting to make the ESA more economically accountable, it has not escaped the attention of many in the Pacific Northwest. As a result, a series of lawsuits over the last decade has challenged NOAA's ESA implementation. The suits have, for the most part, born fruit. NOAA's two most recent biological opinions have been struck down, and the federal district court has indicated that without a drastic change in course, salmon recovery is headed for a train wreck. Thus, the Columbia Basin salmon story appears about to embark on a new era of active judicial oversight. This article explains how and why this development came to be, and charges that NOAA and the federal agencies operating Columbia Basin dams have engaged in longstanding deceptive practices, in an attempt to mislead the public and Congress into thinking that meaningful salmon restoration is underway, when in fact it has never been seriously attempted.

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