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Commentaries and editorials

Dam Busters Oppose Technology

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, October 2006

'Return to the River' warrants careful reading

Things are heating up (again) on the Columbia River salmon front. Let's put history aside this month and focus on the present. I am writing a week before the Subcommittee on Water and Power of the US House of Representatives Committee on Resources meets in Pasco Washington, July 7, 2006. That morning hearing and a Washington State Grange sponsored afternoon session will address impending Columbia River salmon developments. I will attend both sessions. This month's column is taken from my testimony to the House committee.

My credentials for testimony include a working career of university teaching and research in natural resource (fisheries) economics, recently augmented by seven post-retirement years of occasional writing about Columbia River salmon. Perhaps more important, I am not part of the Dam busters oppose technology salmon-environmentalist-fisherman-biologist complex. Apart from a few dollars earned through freelance writing, I have not taken a dime from any organization involved with Columbia River salmon and don't intend to.

I confine my remarks to summary statements. Readers seeking additional information or justification are encouraged to email me. They may also consult columns on Columbia River salmon and dams published in Wheat Life (Washington Association of Wheat Growers' official publication) beginning December 2005 and ongoing. With luck and diligence these will soon be available in book form.

I particularly welcome opportunities to discuss spoiler arguments anti-hydro groups use to confuse discussion of alternatives to their magic bullet solution - Snake River dam breaching. The tricks are numerous. Use outdated sources ('80s, early '90s) even where contradicted by more recent information. Cite unrepresentative cases (Snake River sockeye) to (mis)represent broader trends. Use suggestive terms (salmon chewing turbines) to create false impressions. And so on.

The bottom line - validate technology

Technology is available to support this committee's goal, which is a balanced, cost considerate reconciliation of all (salmon and non-salmon) uses of the Columbia River. Many measures are in effect and their positive results are confirmed by experience and scientific testing. Two of the most important are smolt transportation (barging) and supplementation hatcheries.

Barging solves the juvenile migration problem

The problem of safely passing juvenile salmon over dams is largely solved, with installed equipment and methods or well understood improvements. The more difficult task is reservoir passage. Replicable scientific testing now confirms the common sense solution - go around. Since 1975, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has collected juvenile salmon above Snake and Columbia River dams and transported them by barge to release points below Bonneville Dam. Survival during the barge trip ranges in the high 90-percent range, vastly exceeding in-river survival under any foreseeable conditions, including an entirely natural (undammed) river.

However, once at sea, barged juveniles survive at lower rates than in-river migrants. It would be nice to know why and studies are underway. Whatever their outcome, the important policy relationship is between total (river plus ocean) survival and spawners required to maintain runs.

University of Washington Professor James Anderson studied this topic for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I summarize his results for 52 study cases between 1998 and 2000. Many fisheries scientists assert two percent of juvenile salmon must return to sustain populations. Barging met that threshold in over one quarter of Anderson's cases (15/52). Survival of barged fish approached that level (1.02.0 percent) in over half his cases (27/52).

This remarkable result is achieved with a small (indeed tiny) fraction of the money spent on Columbia River salmon conservation. In 2005, barging 22-million salmon smolts cost $4.4-millions. Total Columbia River salmon costs cannot be as easily determined. However, the Bonneville Power Administration, which bears most of those costs, reports expenditures and foregone power revenue of $576-million during 2005.

Supplementation hatcheries produce wild salmon

All Columbia River salmon are wild, spending most of their lives subject to the rigors of nature. Supplementation hatcheries are relatively new (post '80s) developments. They bear little resemblance to older hatcheries installed along with the dams to support commercial and sport fishing. The latter operated with little regard for preserving genetic or other characteristics of local in-stream spawning salmon.

Supplementation hatcheries reverse that priority in favor of preserving local stocks. In-stream spawning salmon are transferred to hatcheries and spawned under controlled conditions which vastly increase juvenile survival. The resulting progeny are returned to streams of origin where they imprint on local water chemistry before going to sea. Unless intentionally marked, hatchery assisted juveniles are, for all reasonable purposes, indistinguishable from their in-stream spawned parents and brethren. The lucky ones return to spawn in an entirely natural manner, producing equally indistinguishable descendants.

The cost of supplementation hatcheries is not segregated from total (supplementation and production) hatchery expenditures. The figure most likely measures in the tens of millions.

Supplementation hatcheries can be flexible, cost effective tools for permanently offsetting downstream mortality. Consider James Anderson's barging study cases. If barging produces adequate (two percent) survival, well and good. If not, the deficit can be offset by producing more wild salmon in supplementation hatcheries. The numbers work (sustain populations), natural genetics are preserved (sufficient to satisfy any reasonable person), and intrusion on other river uses is minimized.

Dam busters oppose technology

Nevertheless, the salmon-environmentalist-fishermen-biologist complex fiercely, and so far successfully, resists treating technological solutions, like barging and supplementation hatcheries, as permanent ESA compliance measures. They insist on giving barging diminished status as a temporary expedient to maintain runs until reservoirs are made salmon-safe. During that interim ESA compliance documents even require in-river passage of a significant portion of juveniles. This, it is said, spreads the risk. What it really does is keeps the dams and reservoirs on the ESA hook, thereby holding open the cherished Snake River dam breaching option.

Supplementation hatcheries get the same diminishing treatment. Current ESA compliance documents do not count first generation supplementation fish in abundance totals for ESA listed populations. This cancels the mortality offsetting effect of a supplementation hatchery's direct output, even though the fish produced are genetically and otherwise (to reasonable people) identical to their wild parents and brethren. One NOAA Fisheries biologist openly admitted this stingy counting method was adopted, in part, to avoid undermining measures to improve habitat. Grownups know one of those habitat improving measures is dam breaching.

For justification of this ideologically motivated nonsense, talk to a true believing environmentalist, with or without a biology degree. For a rejoinder, email me. I return to my main point.

The single most important thing members of Congress and other persons of influence can do to reconcile salmon and non-salmon uses of the Columbia River is overcome the salmon establishment's resistance to salmon saving technology. The above are only two of many examples of that resistance. For specific actions I defer to better political strategists than myself. However, even we political amateurs know members of Congress have many avenues of influence (informal as well as formal) over administrative agencies, particularly when they are members of the president's party.

My retirement years of Columbia River salmon study and prior career in fisheries economics put me close to the politics and culture of fisheries science. Both experiences convince me members of Congress should feel no embarrassment about intruding on Columbia River salmon science. Northwest fisheries science has never been free of political influence and never will be. The complex relationship between federal fisheries scientists, the fishing industry and others of political importance was put simply to me by a biologist whose career began in the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (precursor of NOAA Fisheries). As he put it, "We work for our constituents, they wrote the law."

Readers with long memories of Northwest fisheries affairs will share my personal recollections of intimate dealings between Northwest federal fisheries scientists and political luminaries like Washington's Warren Magnusun and Alaska's Ted Stevens and Don Young. Others with more recent experience will, I am sure, recall similar events during the tenure of Will Stelle. It was under Stelle's supervision, as Clinton administration Northwest Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries, that much of the current administrative/scientific record of Columbia River salmon conservation evolved. Stelle came to that politically appointed position from a prior federal job - assistant to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt.

So much for separating science and politics.

Environmentalists and salmon advocates (in and out of government) will attack efforts to validate salmon saving technology on all fronts, certainly including litigation. We know Judge Redden's inclinations and have discouraging hints about those of the 9th Circuit. However, the nation's economically most significant ESA issue might attract the attention of the nation's highest court. Some ESA language admittedly weakens the legal case for technology. However, other language (along with much science and common sense) could be fashioned into a well crafted defense of the creative use of salmon saving technology to reconcile ESA with economic reality. What a case to put before the new (Roberts, Alito) Supreme Court.

To date, Republicans have the strongest record for supporting salmon saving technology. Bush administration fisheries appointees have delivered (somewhat) on the president's campaign promise to oppose Snake River dam breaching. One example was the NOAA Fisheries (supportive) revision of hatchery policy in response to the Alsea Valley (Judge Hogan) decision. Another was BiOp2004, the Bush administration's revision of the Clinton administration ESA compliance plan (BiOp2000). Among that document's contributions to rationality was removal of the Snake River dam breaching option. We shall see how it fares on appeal. Win, lose or draw it was a good try.

It is simplistic to regard technological solutions as only benefiting predominately Republican farmers and rural communities. Hydroelectric power is the most significant economic use threatened by draconian, back-to-nature measures, like dam removal and radical changes in the water budget. Northwest power experts can explain how the cost of reduced regional power production bears on urban, predominately Democratic communities.

Equally simplistic is the view that beating up on the Columbia River hydro system is a cheap green vote, a symbolic issue non-Northwest lawmakers can exploit to accommodate national environmental groups without cost to their constituents. I refer to the 103 lawmakers who recently signed an anti-hy-dro letter to NOAA Administrator Lautenbacher and to the 79 co-sponsors of Washington Representative Jim McDermott's Salmon Planning Act.

Those lawmakers should study Edwards Dam. Edwards was the first hydroelectric dam removed by the federal government for environmental reasons against the will of its owner. Completed in 1837 on Maine's Kennebec River, Edwards was a minor power producer (3.5 megawatts) and otherwise economically obsolete.

Economic and environmental specifics were not what excited environmentalists who cheered its demolition in 1999. At the breaching ceremony, then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt said, "This is something that is going to effect the entire nation." Followers of Babbitt's career know what that means for Columbia and Snake River dams.

Political reality suggests Northwesterners may someday also suffer the indignity of watching Babbitt swing his (in)famous green hammer. Edwards Dam foretells what will follow. After the Mother of All scalp dances around the ruins of the first major federal hydroelectric power project ever demolished, anti-development environmentalists will take renewed energy and lessons learned back home. Communities nationwide that depend on federal land and water resource projects will rightly fear the consequences - particularly in the rural West.

Related Pages:
Hundreds in Idaho Mourn Former Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage by Jesse Harlan Alderman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/9/6


Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Dam Busters Oppose Technology
Wheat Life, October 2006

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