Academic journal article Environmental Law

"The Supreme Court of Science" Speaks on Water Rights: The National Academy of Sciences Columbia River Report and Its Water Policy Implications

Academic journal article Environmental Law

"The Supreme Court of Science" Speaks on Water Rights: The National Academy of Sciences Columbia River Report and Its Water Policy Implications

Article excerpt

  I. INTRODUCTION
 II. WATER DEVELOPMENT AND MANAGEMENT ON THE COLUMBIA
     A. The Bygone Columbia
     B. The Columbia Today: Dams, Water Use, and Salmon
     C. Water Allocation by States Under Prior Appropriation
     D. Pressure for Expanded Uses (New Rights and Uninterruptible
        Status)
III. THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES STUDY
     A. NAS and the Committee
     B. The Committee's Charge: Salmon Science and Water
        Management Scenarios
     C. Review of the Science
     D. Findings and Recommendations
        1. Six General Findings and Recommendations
        2. Reaction to Ecology's Management Scenarios
 IV. WATER POLICY IMPLICATIONS OF THE NAS STUDY
     A. A Joint Forum for Columbia Basin Water Allocation
     B. Conservation and Markets as the First Option for Meeting
        New Demands
     C. Tougher Requirements for Obtaining New Water Use Permits
     D. Greater Flexibility in Water Allocation and Management
  V. CONCLUSION: CAN SCIENCE REALLY CHANGE WATER POLICY IN THE WEST?

I. INTRODUCTION

Like many rivers throughout the western United States, the Columbia has been dramatically altered by human activities. A series of major dams and diversions have radically changed the big river and its tributaries, such as the Snake, the Yakima, and the Deschutes, turning them into an economic engine for the Pacific Northwest. So thoroughly has it been exploited for hydropower, navigation, and irrigation that the Columbia has been described as a river that has "died and been reborn as money." (1)

As the Columbia River system grew more industrialized, however, its legendary salmon populations declined sharply. The Columbia's salmon runs may once have numbered 16 million fish, but by the 1990s they had fallen to something like one million, and most of those fish were artificially produced in hatcheries. (2) As more Pacific salmon populations were added to the national list of threatened and endangered species, recognition grew in the Pacific Northwest that the Columbia Basin ecosystem may have been pushed too far, and that changes would be needed to restore the salmon runs. (3)

The Columbia, however, still faces new demands for water from farmers, cities, and others who continue to regard the River as a viable source. These new demands are sizable--pending applications for new permits in Washington alone total up to 1.3 million acre-feet (4) of water. (5) These new demands could be viewed with some validity as either an incremental increase in use that is small in the context of the Columbia's annual flow, or as a new depletion that would further reduce river levels in the summertime when salmon are already stressed by low flows and high water temperatures. (6) Irrigators and other would-be water users have argued strongly for the former view, while environmental groups and other salmon advocates have forcefully advocated the latter position. (7)

Caught in the middle is the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology), the agency responsible for decisions regarding new permits to withdraw water from the Columbia for use in Washington. Seeking a definitive scientific answer to the dispute over the potential impacts of new water withdrawals from the Columbia, Ecology asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study the issue. (8) NAS, a nonprofit group of research scholars that is often called "The Supreme Court of Science," (9) has issued a variety of influential reports on water management and the needs of native fish species, including a much-publicized 2002 draft report that questioned the scientific basis of Klamath Basin water management. (10) Ecology's request was unusual, however, in that it came from a state agency, whereas NAS normally advises the federal government. (11)

NAS released its report, Managing the Columbia River." Instream Flows, Water Withdrawals, and Salmon Survival (Report), on March 31, 2004. (12) The Report finds that additional water withdrawals from the Columbia would, indeed, increase risks to salmon during critical periods of relatively low flows and high water temperatures. …

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