The irreplaceable salmon-spawning habitat of Alaska’s Bristol Bay is close to the federal protection it has long deserved. The Environmental Protection Agency should make up for its 2017 failure and secure full Clean Water Act protection before the political pendulum swings again. 

A $2 billion annual fishery, which drives commerce in Alaska and Washington state, and the traditions of the 25 federally recognized Native tribes in the area depend on this permanent protection. It would shield the watershed and fish from the existential threat of improper development — including, finally, the massive ill-advised Pebble Mine proposal. 

The prospect of that 308-square-mile project has loomed over the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for decades. Extracting vast riches in gold and copper, along with rarer minerals, would scar the Bristol Bay watershed, including the waters more than 35 million sockeye return to each year. 

A mine requires more than just a hole in the earth, especially at Pebble Mine’s proposed scale. Project plans include a 165-mile methane pipeline, an 82-mile road, a gas-to-electricity power plant and large ponds for dumping mine-waste byproducts, some toxic to fish and people. 

The mine’s backers have fought hard to keep its prospects alive despite immense environmental concerns, creating a dizzying back-and-forth. Court action ran out the clock on the Obama administration’s efforts to extend EPA protections to Bristol Bay. Under President Trump, the proposed protections were initially withdrawn. Then Donald Trump Jr. and other highly placed opponents spoke out and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit. 

The uncertainty needs to stop, for the good of the salmon and the 15,000 fishing jobs that rely on them. That can happen if the EPA’s protection becomes permanent. The Biden administration has bolstered the Bristol Bay cause by opening the Clean Water Act process, as Biden promised on the campaign trail.

To help finish the job, concerned people should speak up in the comment period that runs until July 5, by following the process at epa.gov/bristolbay to write in or attend public hearings.