Breaching Briefby Robert Stokes
Northwest Inlander, November 22, 2001
Next month, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decides whether breaching four Snake River dams is required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If NMFS says yes, dam supporters will take their case to Congress. If the agency says no, breaching proponents will go to court. Either way, the fight will continue after the agency makes its decision.
Opponents of the dams say their continued operation will eliminate native salmon and steelhead from the Snake River. They also say the economic consequences of breaching them will be moderate. Dam supporters claim breaching will severely damage agriculture, shipping and other industries that use the services provided by the dams. They also claim breaching the dams will do little for the salmon that could not be accomplished at lower cost. One hard cost of breaching is the loss of 15 percent of Bonneville's hydroelectric capacity.
To better understand this complex issue, it's helpful to take a few steps back and ask some basic questions:
But ESA protects "significant population segments" of a species. To comply with this provision, NMFS divided Columbia River salmon runs into what the agency calls Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs). Since 1991, it has declared all four ESUs in the Snake River to be threatened or endangered; sockeye, spring/summer chinook, fall chinook and steelhead.
NMFS is saying a significant loss of biodiversity would occur if Columbia River sockeye salmon no longer returned to Redfish Lake, Idaho -- even though they continue to spawn in Lake Wenatchee, Wash. Likewise, if fall chinook salmon vanished from the Snake River, although they continue to spawn in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. And so on, for spring/summer chinook and steelhead.
Whatever NMFS decides, politicians and the public will ultimately decide how much biodiversity is worth preserving. Under ESA, a committee of political appointees (popularly known as the God squad) has already made that determination once. They supported building a dam in Tennessee, in spite of its possible impact on a listed species called the snail darter. For the Snake River dams, the God squad may be the U.S. Congress, which must fund any breaching proposal. It's worth noting that the region's Congressional delegation currently does not support the idea of breaching.
For the moment, let's accept the NMFS view that Snake River salmon are significantly different from salmon of the same species found elsewhere in the Columbia system. Let's also accept the "save the species at any cost" philosophy of ESA. This raises the following additional questions.
The sense of urgency created by the ESA listing has spurred research into the effectiveness of these methods and exploration for further improvements. Of particular note are recent NMFS tagging studies that show improving survival rates for juvenile salmon. In some cases, survival after passing through the dams has approached levels found in free flowing rivers.
Much of the benefit to salmon would result from restoring the bottom and shoreline characteristics of a free running river. After breaching, it would take many more years for natural stream flow and erosion to restore those conditions.
The complexities of nature make that kind of certainty unlikely for salmon recovery research. Further, economic interests and ideology divide experts as well as laymen. Environmentalists want to restore free flowing rivers, as well as preserve salmon. This gives them a bias in favor of breaching, regardless of which recovery measure is best for salmon. Users of the services provided by the dams want to keep those services, salmon or no salmon.
Other economic groups hope breaching will head off recovery measures more harmful to their interests. Sport, commercial and tribal salmon harvesters would prefer breaching, rather than further catch restrictions. Some Idaho farmers would also prefer breaching, rather than having their irrigation water used to flush salmon through the reservoirs. Meanwhile, hanging over the entire issue is the fear that if certain runs do go extinct, lawsuits from Native Americans related to fishing rights treaties could cost the federal government many millions. And to complicate things even more, everyone has their own experts, in and out of government.
Somehow, the public must sort out what is more or less true, and more or less important. It will not be easy, but this could be the region's most important environmental/economic decision in decades.
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