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Damned Disgrace

by Nick Horton
Seattle Magazine, January 2009

Seth Caswell is in love with Seattle's farmers' markets. And for good reason: The 38-year-old Seattle chef, who cultivated a strong following while cooking at Phinney Ridge's Stumbling Goat Bistro, is dedicated to working with local and regional foods. His menus reflect this, with ingredients such as purple haze carrots from Oxbow Organic Farm in Carnation and fresh chevre from River Valley Ranch in Fall City, for instance.

Caswell, who left the Stumbling Goat last summer, plans to continue following the locavore movement when he opens his own restaurant, Emmer, on South Lake Union this spring. He gets his wheat from Bluebird Farms, a sustainable and organic eastern Washington grain grower. His shellfish hails from Taylor Shellfish in Shelton. But there's one local food that Caswell-or any other chef, for that matter-cannot serve to his diners: wild Columbia River salmon.

Caswell is a big fan of that iconic Northwest fish-big enough, in fact, that he has joined with other local chefs, fishermen and conservationists in assisting Save Our Wild Salmon, a conservation coalition, in its efforts to convince Congress to restore salmon habitat.

"For the Pacific Northwesterner, whether you've moved here recently or whether you can trace five-or even 100-generations of family in the region, the salmon is the icon of our open waters, and wild and free ecosystems," Caswell says.

That belief has connected him-and the offerings on local menus-with a controversy that continues to split the state's residents: how best to save the once-plentiful wild salmon from the Columbia River and it's major tributary, the Snake River.

On the other side of the state-hundreds of miles from Seattle's farmers' markets-is the Ice Harbor Lock and Dam. It's hard not to feel small here. The dam, which spans the width of the Snake River nine miles east of Pasco, in southeastern Washington, is a joyless gray monolith. But it's also huge. The dam's massive concrete wall stretches over a half-mile to the opposite bank. Its crown bristles with high-voltage electrical wires. Its 10 spillways rumble and thunder with whitewater, and a shroud of mist drifts over the sagebrush and grasses of the surrounding Palouse.

Since construction was completed in 1961, the dam has proven adept at three things: generating hydropower; maintaining a slackwater reservoir on its upstream side-all the better for barges, which use this river to ship wheat downstream from Lewiston, Idaho-and making life difficult for salmon. Very difficult.

Ice Harbor-and the three other federal dams on the lower Snake River-is equipped with fish ladders, which allow mature, returning salmon to migrate upriver with reasonable success. But juvenile salmon, who must navigate downstream, aren't so lucky.

Most of the Snake River's salmon spawn in tributaries in northeastern Oregon and in the mountains of Idaho, where pristine, unharmed habitat still exists. Juvenile salmon typically spend the first four to five months of their lives in their native streams before migrating en masse downstream in May and June. When they encounter the dams, those fish are either propelled through massive turbines-where they stand a small chance of surviving-or swept through spillways, where the odds of survival are similarly slim.

In the mid–19th century, nearly 5 million Chinook and sockeye migrated through this stretch of river every year. These days, the Snake's wild salmon population is less than 1 percent of that amount, and the river is home to four dwindling species of salmon that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

It's because of these salmon that the lower Snake River dams have become a flashpoint in an increasingly heated debate. An unusual alliance of conservationists, fishermen and chefs are stepping up their arguments for the destruction and removal of all four dams.

Although dam removal may seem like a prohibitively large and costly project, it will soon have a precedent here in Washington state. Two hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River, which runs through the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, are scheduled for removal in 2012. The Elwha, once home to one of the West Coast's largest salmon runs, has been dammed since 1913, and its salmon have nearly disappeared.

But thanks to the efforts of the Elwha K'lallam Tribe, various environmental groups and hard-charging elected officials (including U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks), the river's two dams were bought by the federal government in 2000. Their decommissioning and deconstruction will be the National Parks Service's second-largest environmental restoration project-trailing only the Everglades-and stands to return the Elwha salmon to their former numbers.

The Elwha's dams are neither as large, nor as new, nor as productive as their counterparts on the lower Snake, but their imminent removal suggests a gathering storm of anti-dam, pro-salmon sentiment.

In this era of local food sourcing, declining salmon stocks and increased alternative power generation, can Washingtonians afford not to remove the four lower Snake River dams?

Removing a dam is no small decision. Aside from the economic ripple it would cause, just removing all four lower Snake River dams could cost as much as $350 million annually for 10 years. And despite the Elwha decision, there is nothing approaching a consensus on whether a similar move is the right one for the lower Snake River.

The contretemps-however hot it may be-is nothing new. In fact, the two sides of the salmon debate have been locked in battle in state and federal courts for the last two decades. And during that time, the federal government has spent more than $8 billion on salmon recovery efforts, to no avail.

As the battles continue in court and on editorial pages, the salmon continue to decline.

Advocates of dam removal contend that the federal agencies responsible for salmon recovery are practicing the "politics of extinction" by delaying the possibility of dam removal until the salmon are entirely gone. But those federal agencies-namely, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers-contend that dams are only a small part of a larger problem. (They argue that the salmon's decline is primarily attributable to lost spawning habitat caused by streamside logging, changing ocean conditions that create a scarcity of food sources, depletion of stocks from fisheries' harvests and competition from hatchery fish.)

Despite this, the fracas surrounding the future of the Snake River dams can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement.

Those who argue that the dams should stay: The farmers who barge their wheat down the river, the power companies and electrical utilities that buy and sell the electricity generated by the dams, and the federal agencies responsible for the dams' operations make this argument because they believe that the hydropower, shipping route and jobs provided by the dams are of the highest priority.

Those who argue that the dams should go: The conservationists and fishermen who have issued legal challenges to the government over dam operations make this argument because they believe that the cultural and economic value of the salmon is of the highest priority.

So divergent are the views of those arguing on either side of this divide that it's difficult to believe any common ground will be found.

"There's a long history of scientific opinions saying the single best thing we can do to get healthy salmon runs back to the Snake River basin is remove the four lower Snake River dams," says Todd True, an attorney who represents pro-dam-removal interests as they battle NOAA and industry groups in federal court.

John Saven, chairman of Northwest RiverPartners, a coalition of industry groups, PTA customers, agricultural interests and other river users, counters, "The dams, as they're being operated today, are achieving a higher salmon survival level than before we put the Snake River dams in." Saven argues that the river's pre-dam state-a run-of-the-river environment complete with predators and other natural challenges-was inherently more dangerous to juvenile salmon. How so, exactly, is unclear.

NOAA, BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, along with others in the pro-dam camp, argue that the best available science proves that the lower Snake River dams have a minimal effect on salmon survival.

"The question on the Snake River dam removal is twofold," says Witt Anderson, programs director for the Army Corps of Engineers' Northwestern Division who oversees the division's $3 billion program, which includes salmon restoration. "One: Is it necessary? And two: Is it sufficient? What we're saying is that it's not necessary, and it's not sufficient." In essence, Anderson and the corps-like John Saven and Northwest RiverPartners-argue that river conditions are actually improved because of the dams, given the dollars that are included for salmon restoration.

So how can these two sides-both swelling with educated, intelligent thinkers-disagree on something as fundamental as the science of salmon survival?

Anderson's assertion is based on a 2008 study prepared by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. The study, a court-ordered "biological opinion" (or "BiOp"), is NOAA's second attempt at creating a salmon recovery plan that satisfies its obligations-to recover endangered salmon populations and to ensure their future survival-under the Endangered Species Act. The agency's previous BiOp-created in 2004-was ruled invalid by Justice James Redden of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Redden dismissed the BiOp on the grounds that it further jeopardized the salmon instead of aiding their recovery, thereby violating the Endangered Species Act.

In doing so, Redden excited many conservationists; here, at last, was a powerful government figure standing up for salmon. Redden has yet to rule on the 2008 BiOp, but a coalition of conservationist groups and fishermen sued NOAA two months after its release, claiming that the 2008 BiOp was even worse for salmon than the 2004 version.

The rift between the two sides is partly about geography. There is a figurative curtain drawn across the Cascades-for the most part, residents of western Washington either support dam removal or are ambivalent, while residents of eastern Washington are avidly pro-dam.

"People on the east side are physically closer to the dams, and they're actually connected to their various uses, like irrigation, navigation and recreation," notes Saven of Northwest RiverPartners.

While westsiders benefit from hydroelectricity-Seattle City Light buys as much as 25 percent of its annual power from BPA, the federal agency that brokers the electricity produced by 31 federal dams around the Pacific Northwest-it's a less obvious connection.

The geographic issue is also represented politically. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, a westside member of Congress who represents Seattle's 7th District and a longtime advocate of dam removal, has repeatedly called for action from the federal government. "We've spent a lot of money in the last 20 years on this issue," McDermott says, "and the salmon stocks have not been recovered. Clearly, something isn't working." Though McDermott has yet to pass a bill regarding Columbia River and Snake River salmon, he continues to press the issue on his colleagues in the House of Representatives, many of whom are resistant to the idea of dam removal. The latest version of McDermott's bill is the Salmon Economic Analysis and Protection Act (SEAPA), which calls for an independent, nonpartisan scientific study of the health of Snake River salmon. It, too, has been met with opposition in the House.

"In order to get something done [in Congress], I took dam removal authorization out of the bill last session," McDermott says, "and they still didn't want to hold a hearing on it. They're afraid to find out what the science will show, I think. If you won't let there be an independent scientific study, you simply must have something you're afraid of."

And it comes as no surprise that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, an eastside Republican who represents Washington's 5th District (which covers the far eastern part of the state), is all for keeping the lower Snake River dams. She outlined the pro-dam argument with refreshing simplicity last fall at a Northwest RiverPartners forum in the Tri-Cities. "Dams built the Northwest's economy," she said. "They provided affordable, renewable energy for industries like Boeing and Kaiser Aluminum, and now the dams are powering the high-tech industry in our state."

There is little argument concerning one aspect of this issue: Removing the lower Snake River dams would have sizable economic consequences.

The four dams-Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite-account for roughly 5 percent of all hydroelectric power generated in the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS). That's as much power as three nuclear power plants would provide. Built between 1962 (Ice Harbor) and 1975 (Lower Granite), the dams enabled oceangoing barge traffic to navigate all 465 miles upriver to Lewiston, Idaho, which became the western United States' farthest inland seaport.

Today, more than 4 million tons of cargo are shipped down the lower Snake River every year. Grain-primarily wheat grown in eastern Washington and Idaho-accounts for more than 85 percent of all shipping cargo, with forest products, peas and lentils making up the bulk of the remainder. From barging to dam operations to hydropower management, the four lower Snake River dams provide myriad employment opportunities in a relatively sparse area of the state. It's not hard to understand why many eastern Washingtonians are opposed to breaching these monuments of economic vitality.

But if you believe that the dams inflict significant harm upon salmon, then you can also argue that they hurt another staple of the Pacific Northwest's economy and a focus of the increasingly popular local food movement.

Experts from both sides can't agree on the exact percentage of juvenile salmon that are killed by dams during their downstream migration, but environmental groups claim that the four lower Snake River dams are the single largest roadblock to recovery. They also point to the fact that the dams have transformed the river from a cool, fast-moving environment into a warmer, slackwater reservoir, where predation from birds and other fish is much greater. Federal scientists point to new technologies such as the removable spillway weir, which allows juvenile salmon swimming on the surface of the river to pass safely over the top of the dam. To date, removable spillway weirs have been installed at three of the four lower Snake River dams, resulting in increased juvenile salmon survival. How much of an increase, of course, is up for debate.

Experts are divided as to how the salmon-versus-dams issue will play out, but many conservationists believe that the new presidential administration will rise to their defense.

"We're looking at a slow-motion train wreck," says Sierra Club's Dan Ritzman of current policies. "But because these fish are so important to this region and this country, we're going to see some national political officials step in and take leadership."

But industries, the hydroelectric lobby and eastern Washingtonians are comforted by the physical presence of the lower Snake River dams. When standing at the base of any of the dams, it's apparent that it will take an epic movement to bring them down.

Whatever decision is made, because so many livelihoods are at stake, it will be painful for whichever side loses. And in this divisive issue, it's very unlikely a solution will be found in which everyone is a winner. Meanwhile, in Seattle, chefs like Seth Caswell will continue dreaming of the day they'll be able to serve local wild salmon-that huge, fatty, delicious bounty of Washington waters. That day's arrival, however, remains locked in the concrete of the Snake River dams.

Nick Horton
Damned Disgrace
Seattle Magazine, January 2009

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