HERMISTON - The recent decision that Oregon coastal coho salmon can survive without federal protection from the Endangered Species Act provides "the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel" in the struggle to save fish without harming agriculture and the economy, Rep. Bob Jenson told the Oregon Water Coalition on Tuesday.
The coalition is a Hermiston-based group that works to keep members informed about water issues locally and around the state and region.
It's general membership meeting and water conference was held in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce luncheon featuring Gary Reed, a member of the Oregon Water Resources Commission.
Coastal coho don't reach the waters of northeast Oregon, but the decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service not to restore the ESA safeguards for the fish has hopeful implications for the region, said Jenson, who has chaired the House Water Committee the past two sessions.
Jenson, a Pendleton Republican, had a hand in the ruling, because several years ago, he helped push through legislation that led to a definition of recovery for a species protected by the ESA.
"It struck me in the 2001 session that one of the big problems was there was no way to tell if you were every winning the battle ... the goal posts kept moving."
His legislation created a task force that drew together scientists and a wide variety of stakeholders "to give us a framework" for judging progress in helping endangered fish.
Jenson said after looking at Oregon's report, and reviewing the plans, effort and money that had gone into helping restore coastal coho, NMFS "chose not to relist the coastal coho, much to the objections of environmentalists.
Those environmentalists argued coastal coho numbers are still only about a tenth of its historic populations.
But the decision means the Oregon species that was once a staple of coastal fishing fleets will remain in state hands, freeing loggers, farmers and other businesses from the regulations that would have otherwise come with federal protections.
Jenson said the state should be able to take the model of Oregon coastal coho "and begin to work that up the river ... it will take time, and money and lots of effort ... but we now have something that does work."
However, the Endangered Species Act will continue to be "a real driver" regarding water policy in Oregon, Jenson predicted, noting the Court wants to "draw down a little more water" on the Columbia to help fish at the expense of power generation.
"Water is not going to become more abundant or cheaper," he said. "We have to keep fighting" to secure adequate water supplies for the future.