Snake River Dams and Salmon
by Robert McClure
It's theoretically possible to rescue Snake River salmon and also preserve the river's fish-killing dams, federal officials concluded yesterday in a report that drew tempered praise from Sen. Slade Gorton and dam-dependent businesses.
But that conclusion was greeted with suspicion by fishermen, environmentalists and Indian tribes, who said it provided more evidence that political pressure is pushing federal agencies away from the controversial idea of disabling the dams.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had been set to issue a preliminary decision on breaching the dams next month, said the decision would be put off for a while.
Ultimately, Congress will have to make the final call, but events yesterday made it murkier than ever when that might occur.
"We have some tough decisions to make," said Will Stelle, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We believe that a long-term, durable recovery effort for salmon and steelhead . . . must ground itself on regional commitments. It's not just a federal decision."
The agencies issued a report analyzing different combinations of actions that could be taken to help restore the fish.
The most promising way is a multifaceted effort that would also place the greatest restrictions on use of the river and nearby lands, the paper concluded.
The dams would be breached, meaning their earthen flanks would be removed to allow the river to flow naturally. Currently the dams make the river more like a series of big, warm reservoirs that are unhealthy for salmon and steelhead trout.
In addition, the federal government would step in to improve the stream conditions that affect the fish. This could involve a wide range of actions, including limiting logging and cattle grazing near the stream banks and taking or buying water rights from Idaho farmers to help improve stream flows.
Meanwhile, hatchery production of fish to be caught by commercial and recreational fishermen would be curtailed. Instead, the hatcheries would boost levels of wild fish, which are genetically more resilient and whose catch is more restricted.
A fourth measure in this most-restrictive approach would be to reduce the levels of salmon being caught.
"From a wild salmon's perspective, the most conservative (combination) is the best," Stelle said at a Portland news conference announcing the release of the report.
Nevertheless, some combination of more modest efforts probably could bring the fish back, the federal agencies said.
Stelle said federal agencies will not pick the best way. Instead, they will talk with people throughout the region, including business interests, fishermen, political leaders and environmentalists.
"These options don't represent any choices by the federal agencies," Stelle said. "The only game plan is to lay out some of the choices and try to stimulate honest debate in the region."
The idea of disabling the dams is by far the most controversial. According to a wide-ranging panel of federal, state, tribal and university scientists, the idea offers near certainty that fall chinook runs can be rescued, and it provides 80 percent odds that spring and summer runs will return.
The panel worked on the question for a number of years. In the last year, though, a group of Fisheries Service scientists separately examined the question. They agreed that dam-breaching would save the fall chinook runs, but they said it would get only about a third of the job done in saving the spring and summer runs.
And the Fisheries Service scientists said other combinations of options might also do the job.
"The scientists say there's no slam-dunk that comes down on either side" of the dam-breaching question, said Col. Eric Mosley of the Corps of Engineers.
Still, said Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon, the report does say that dam breaching would do a lot to help the fish.
"To me this actually bolsters the case for dam removal," Zimmer said. "It's the only option that helps all the fish across the board. All the other options are somewhat piecemeal."
And -- in some cases -- impractical or potentially illegal.
For example, the federal government probably can't force Indian tribes to stop catching salmon, since their fishing rights are guaranteed by law.
"To us, one of the things that's disturbing is that the options they're talking about will not meet federal law," said Don Sampson, director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "I'm surprised that these federal agencies would come out with something that doesn't even pretend to meet federal law."
Sampson said he was encouraged that the report started to take a broad look at the "four Hs" under human control: harvest, habitat, hatcheries and hydropower from electric dams. But, he added, "Their plan is to avoid extinction. Our plan is to rebuild the stocks."
Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the federal government should analyze the science and economics underlying the new options as closely as it did the idea of breaching the dams.
"I think the agencies, facing a politically difficult position, are trying to dodge responsibility," he said.
Political pressure is being expressed through various members of Congress. Particularly outspoken has been Gorton, a Republican who boasts considerable clout within Congress as chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls much of the money used for environmental programs.
"We do hope (the Fisheries Service) follows through on what they're saying and lets the region decide," said Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. "This issue is not just about dam removal, which is what (Gorton) has stressed."
Businesses dependent on the river include farmers who use barges for low-cost transport of their goods, barging companies, the Potlach paper company -- a major employer in Lewiston, Idaho -- and 13 large farms near Pasco that depend on irrigation water from one of the four dams.
"Dam breaching is, in our perspective, wrong," said Rick Davis, operations director of the Clarkston port. "There are other ways to take care of the fish. . . . We feel we can have dams and fish, and all we have to do is come up with a solution."
The study released yesterday encouraged the Columbia River Alliance, a group of businesses dependent on the dam, said director Bruce Lovelin.
"Although dam breaching has not been eliminated as a possible future option, the federal agencies have removed it from its silver-bullet status to one of several means to aid recovery," Lovelin said.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs