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A Foolish Focus on Allegedly 'Lethal' Dams

by Howard Morgan
Guest Commentary, The Oregonian, October 20, 2003

News headlines from The Oregonian: "Salmon jam up at dam's ladder" and "Biologists unsure of reason for fatal tangle" (Metro section, Sept. 19).

What a strangely negative way to announce the glad tidings: This is the third (or is it the fourth -- I've lost count) consecutive annual record-setting run of homecoming mature salmon, mostly fall chinooks, bound upstream to their spawning grounds and overtaxing the fish ladders in the process. One would have thought that everybody, especially the tribal elders, would have reason to be cheery about the whole thing. Instead, the emphasis was on the 25 lost fish out of the more than 45,000 that made it successfully upstream on a single day. Not to mention a number of other days of almost equal success. And the run is not completely over yet. Something between 800,000 to 1 million total fall chinook are expected. And every one of them will be counted at stations for that purpose at the ladders they will climb. Where is the bad news in any of that?

A tribal spokesperson, identified as a scientist, was predictably grumpy and offered the quoted complaint that the multitude of available salmon will depress the going market price! That's another strange thing: Although the tribes helped in the campaign to have salmon listed as endangered species, the tribes apparently wound up with the privilege of harvesting salmon -- endangered or not -- for the commercial market.

I haven't been able to locate another such exemption from the rules protecting endangered species in general, but let that pass. Still, when obvious good news for everyone is routinely presented to the public as bad news, one can hardly be blamed for perceiving it as careless, or something fishy, or even something dam fishy.

For decades the tribes and others have claimed that the Columbia and Snake River dams are principally responsible for the decline of salmon on the rivers, despite the glaring fact that the major part of the decline, including the disappearance of most of the salmon-canning industry on the Columbia, occurred before any of the dams were built. And the tribes and others have worked up computer-modeled "studies" purporting to show that as little as 5 percent of upstream smolts ever get past the dams to reach the sea, despite the fact that neither the total number of upstream smolts, nor the number of upstream smolts reaching the sea, is known or can be known.

Except for those transported by barge, there are no counting stations for smolts in transit and there never will be. It's an impossible task in such a large, complex river system. So how can a percentage relationship between two unknown and unknowable numbers be calculated? Glib reference to computer models will not do. Numbers can be verified or they can be faked. And if we are not careful, instances of the latter will come to outnumber those of the former.

Consider this: The present record-breaking run of fall chinook returning upstream to spawn is composed entirely of mature 3- and 4-year-olds which passed downstream through the dams as smolts four years ago. And it was exactly three and four years ago that hired hands with scientific degrees appended to their names were circulating the flat statement that only 5 percent of smolts from upstream were able to reach the sea because the allegedly "lethal" dams were killing the other 95 percent.

What are they saying now?

They are saying as little as possible, an understandable but not very scientific tactic.

This present extended upsurge is an abrupt and drastic surprise, causing one Oregon Fish and Wildlife official to exclaim, "I would never have believed that this could happen." Well, reality does happen, troublesome though it may be to some.

It is apparent that a change in climate and ocean conditions, following El Nino and La Nina, and affecting the salmon's feeding and rearing areas in the far Pacific is the cause of this wonderful change, which may not be permanent. Much of it is beyond human influence, let alone control, but control limits on overfishing of the oceans can be achieved with time and patience. The Grand Banks of the north Atlantic, now under very tight restrictions after feeding Europeans and North Americans for centuries, is an example.

But while this wonderful change persists, it demonstrates beyond serious question the following:

Not all the problems reside within the river, or within the sea, or on either shore of the Pacific. To take single-aim at only one target is to invite failure.

We should promptly get over the romantic notion that it is possible or desirable to reconstruct the rivers to resemble what Lewis and Clark saw 200 years ago. Ten million highly industrialized people and all their industries and occupations now reside in the Columbia Basin. Equally drastic changes have occurred on land and at sea on both sides of the Pacific and all of them must be faced with maturity, intelligence and determination. It simply has to be done or we shall surely lose what our forebears strived to pass on to us.

Howard Morgan of McMinnville is a former chairman of the Oregon Public Utility Commission and former vice chairman of the Federal Power Commission.
A Foolish Focus on Allegedly 'Lethal' Dams
The Oregonian, October 20, 2003

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