Editor’s note:  This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years  ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was  the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.

Some people have asked me about the new court verdict on Columbia and Snake River salmon and dams. I think it will make a difference on law, science and democracy, and has the potential to be decisive for MHC.

MHC is shorthand for major hydro-system change: restoring the lower Snake River, expanded salmon spill, expanded seasonal flows, or combinations. The first of these rightly gets most attention, but salmon and salmon people need more spill and flows too.

I understand if some think the salmon-and-dams equation has been on a treadmill for 15 years, as courts rule federal salmon plans invalid and federal agencies respond with new illegal plans that again duck core issues. But "rising helix" is a better metaphor than "treadmill." Each verdict has done salmon good, some more than others, and each has built on the last. This verdict’s power would be impossible without those preceding it.

First, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon finds the latest federal plan’s jeopardy standard (which is at its core) and climate change analysis invalid, and made clear on these and other points what the next plan must do to be lawful. It will be hard to lawfully revise the jeopardy standard and do solid climate analysis without leading directly to MHC.

I expect the federal dam agencies and NOAA Fisheries to still try to evade MHC, a strategy on which they’ve piled a lot of chips. But this verdict makes evasion measurably harder; the government’s torture of law and science (notably, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA’s own science) will have to expand, as will its costs.

Second, the verdict repeats previous court assessments that, as a matter of science, major hydro-system change is likely needed. And it adds a new layer by-for the first time-taking head-on the effects of climate change on salmon. The court finds NOAA’s 2008 and 2014 plans ignored the agency’s own best climate-salmon science, and it sets scientific as well as legal sideboards for that analysis in the next plan. If climate-salmon science is assessed accurately, it leads to MHC as a core climate resilience strategy.

Third, the court orders a full environmental impact statement to underlie the next plan. The last EIS was done in 1999, and though it rejected MHC, its public process put restoring the lower Snake River on the Northwest map. Twenty  years later, the people will speak again on restoring the Snake. It will be our most important public and political opportunity to help salmon since they were ESA-listed in 1992.

So it’s a good verdict for Idaho, and it  will move the real world. As usual, the size of the move will be partly determined by what Idaho conservation, fishing, outdoor business, clean energy and climate groups, in partnership with the Nez Perce Tribe, do with the opportunity. I’ll save that for next month, after the court sets the EIS schedule.

– Pat Ford