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Originally published Friday, November 28, 2008 at 1:39 PM

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Rep. John Dingell's legacy for Northwest fish

U.S. Rep. John Dingell might have been ousted as chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, but his legacy for the Northwest is wording he inserted into the Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980. A recreational fisherman, Dingell insisted the act assert the well-being of fish into the Columbia River system's equation with irrigation and power production.

Special to The Times

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, recently removed as chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has touched the lives of people all over this country because of the unique reach of the committee he has served since 1955. He has a hand in everything from the communication technology you use to the air you breathe.

But for us, 1,500 miles from his congressional district along Lake Erie south of Detroit, Dingell's love of one of our fish, the steelhead trout, and his firm grip on energy policy nearly 30 years ago profoundly affected the way we conduct the electricity business in our region.

The steelhead is a highly successful Midwest transplant of a Northwest icon. A powerful fighter, it is a rainbow trout that goes to sea and grows bigger and stronger than its stay-at-home cousin. Starting 120 years ago, fishermen from the Midwest started planting offspring of the fish they caught on our great Steelhead rivers — the McCloud, the Stillaguamish, the Klamath. Over time, the fish made the same journey they did here only in the Great Lakes and made it possible for citizens there to stand in 35-degree water that is moving way too fast for comfort and cast for steelhead in a stiff, hypothermic motion, just like we do out here.

An outdoorsman, and back then a highly mobile one, Dingell loved doing just that and was hardy enough to outlast any companion and connect with plenty of fish.

His love of the outdoors and his experience with the salmon in Lake Erie made Dingell highly influential and knowledgeable in the development of the Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act. This law redistributed the output of federal power generation in the Northwest, put conservation on the table as the first choice for new power and laid the Bonneville Power Administration's checkbook next to it. The bill also had the effect of saving the region's aluminum industry for a decade and significantly increased the influence of the states on federal electricity policy through the four-state Regional Power Council.

But most fascinating to me was an Energy and Commerce Committee markup of the legislation several weeks before its final passage at the end of 1980. Dingell distributed a piece of paper that amended the language of the Fish and Wildlife section of the bill, adding the word "enhance" so that the language read:

"The Council shall promptly develop and adopt, pursuant to this subsection, a program to protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife, including related spawning grounds and habitat, on the Columbia River and its tributaries. Because of the unique history, problems, and opportunities presented by the development and operation of hydroelectric facilities on the Columbia River and its tributaries, the program, to the greatest extent possible, shall be designed to deal with that river and its tributaries as a system."

The effect of the language was to put the fish on a more level playing field with the production of electricity and the provision of irrigation. The old law — "protect and mitigate", essentially meant "stuff happens." The new law made the fish an everyday player in river decisions. Originally, the idea of enhancement seemed an easy mark — more hatchery fish. But, over time, enhancement began to mean more wild fish because of the need to keep greater genetic diversity in the event of disease or other changed conditions. That has dictated a move from a central incubation scheme to a much more significant focus on habitat preservation through acquisition or regulation.

The language also was the genesis of a whole new industry within the region — scientists, technicians and planners — who depend on the fish enhancement business and high water flows of BPA money. Through 2005, BPA had spent some $8 billion dollars in foregone electricity revenues and cash and will spend about a half billion in its most recent plan covering 2009 and 2010.

Assessing the success of Dingell's enhancement language is equal parts science, politics, theology and anthropology. The region has not delivered a coherent message to the regional ratepayers who are funding Dingell's idea. One day we read of a wall of salmon moving up the Columbia, the next we read about a listing under the Endangered Species Act. We are frequently in court over the legality of counting hatchery salmon. So many decisions are made in a federal court in Oregon that it's hard to know the real outcome for the fish. The complexity of the many salmon races entering and leaving the river systems and the many factors along their 4,000-mile journey create many fingers pointed at an infinity of evils.

To the question "are the fish any better off?" an old veteran of the salmon wars tells me: "You know, it's possible."

We should tell this story better. Dingell is removed as chairman, and the new guy, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, is not a fisherman.

Bob Royer worked on the Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act and its implementation while with the City of Seattle. He is managing partner at Gallatin Public Affairs in Seattle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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