the film
Commentaries and editorials

Report Compares Options for Saving Salmon

by Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - November 16, 1999

Federal agencies released a range of recovery options for Snake River salmon today that suggests the fish runs can be restored without breaching the four Lower Snake River dams.

But the report shows there will be no easy answer. If dams aren't breached, state and local governments will be under even more pressure to change water- and land-use policies to help river and stream habitats become useful once again for fish.

The report, headed up by the National Marine Fisheries Service, does not name a preferred course of action. Instead, it provides the probability of recovery under different options, from breaching the Snake River dams, barging more fish around the dams, fishing cutbacks and extensive habitat restoration.

The projections are based on scientific analysis to be published next month. The 16-page working paper is the result of consultation among nine agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps is working on a draft environmental impact statement on whether to breach the hydroelectric dams, which also is due in December. Congress will have the final say.

To some, the report came as no surprise. Rather than a break from previous studies, its findings were in line with conclusions announced by scientists in a report in April.

Those studies concluded while dam breaching would be beneficial, it alone may not be enough to recover Snake River runs. Both reports also say the results of dam breaching could be negligible under certain circumstances, opening the door to other methods of recovery.

No easy choices left

The so-called "4-H report" out today is intended to spur debate and inform decision makers on all factors affecting salmon survival: harvest, hatcheries, the hydropower system and habitat restoration.

There are risks and uncertainties in any scientific model. And though the report offers only probable - not certain - outcomes of recovery options, it minces few words.

It lays out in the clearest possible language that Snake River salmon are in bad shape, and that all the easy choices to rebuild the runs have already been made.

Snake River spring and summer chinook are so bad off that even taking out the dams and eliminating all harvest would not, by themselves, rebuild the runs, according to the report.

Long-term survival would require a combination of changes, including cutbacks in fishing, habitat improvements and barging. But the probable success of even that broad-ranging an effort was clouded by scientific uncertainties.

"The status of the fish runs in the Snake are very bad, and if we don't make changes, they are at real and immediate risk of extinction," said Will Stelle, northwest regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which must issue a biological opinion that spells out a recovery plan by spring.

"If we choose to duck the tough issues because they are too hard, then that choice means a number of these stocks are likely to go extinct.

"Are the governments of the region willing to make commitments necessary to recover these (fish) stocks without removing the dams? That's an open question," Stelle said.

"The major question is whether this region has the fortitude to rebuild habitat productivity."

A 'civil war' in the making?

The fate of the Snake River salmon foreshadows the region's ability to save other fish runs also in trouble, including Puget Sound chinook. Those fish were listed as threatened last spring.

Urban and suburban development, dam construction and industrial-scale logging and agriculture have all contributed to the crash of salmon populations throughout the region. Overfishing and poor hatchery practices also have taken a heavy toll.

Some are optimistic that the region is up to a recovery strategy that attacks the problem on all fronts.

"I've always supported and encouraged a broad-based approach to salmon restoration. I believe that if local communities, state officials and federal agencies work together, a solution will be reached to effectively restore the runs," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Industrial river users weren't nearly so upbeat. They were quick to grasp that taking the bull's-eye off the dams in some ways only begins a more difficult debate.

"Frankly, this could mean a regional civil war," said Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance in Portland, which represents a spectrum of river users - from aluminum smelters, who depend on cheap hydropower, to barge operators who depend on the inland waterway provided by the dams.

"The good news is from the science they don't have to do breaching. But it doesn't mean we are off the hook. It could be onerous."

'Dam-removal debate is over'

Darryll Olsen, a Kennewick consultant who represents Columbia and Snake River irrigators, saw only more demands for sacrifice ahead.

"The dam-removal debate is over. The technical data just doesn't support it. What this means is the next 10 years will be arguing over water policy. That means pressure on irrigators, municipalities, industrial users, and suburban users. It's turning the debate in another direction.

"Everyone's been infatuated with the charismatic gesture of dam removal. But the real issue isn't dams. It's water."

Some environmental groups were disappointed with the report.

"Healthy salmon need healthy rivers, and salmon didn't evolve in rivers chopped up by dams," said David Bayles of the Pacific Rivers Council in Portland.

Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle, which has led a national campaign to breach the four Lower Snake River dams, criticized the report. To rebuild fish runs to harvestable levels, the dams will have to go, Zimmer said.

He was disappointed the report didn't dish out a prescription for recovery. "All they are doing is giving us options and things to talk about. I would hope this debate would be beyond that by now."

He saw no reason for industry to crow over scenarios that posit recovery even with all four Lower Snake River dams in place.

"This poisons the concept of dam removal, we believe, incorrectly. But I challenge industry to say what they are going to give up if they are not going to remove the dams. There's no free lunch here."

Said Washington Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, "It sounds like the administration has decided it has lost the battle over whether or not it should take down dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers."

But, he said, "The battle over dam removal is far from over."

by Lynda V. Mapes
Report Compares Options for Saving Salmon
Seattle Times, November 16, 1999

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation