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Dams Hang in the Balance of Salmon Debate

by Sherry Devlin
Missoulian - March 1, 2000

Many saying lower Columbia, Snake dams must be breached

Fifteen years ago, when Bruce Farling suggested that dams would be the ruination of the Columbia River system's wild salmon and steelhead fishery, he was dismissed as reactionary.

But each year, when he returned to his favorite streams just across the state line in the mountains of central Idaho, he found fewer and fewer of the big fish. Finally, he found none.

Last week, more than 1,200 people in Boise told federal officials that dams have destroyed the long, mountain-to-sea salmon migrations that were unique to the interior West.

And that they want them back.

"This is one helluva thing for an engineering society to admit," said Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. "We made a mistake."

Now Farling finds himself with considerable company in asking Congress to breach four dams on the lower Snake River: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite, built in the 1960s and 1970s between Lewiston, Idaho, and Pasco, Wash.

The last, Ice Harbor, blocks the Snake just above its confluence with the Columbia River.

Since the lower Snake River dams were built, salmon and steelhead populations have crashed. They were, in the words of conservation scientist Scott Bosse, "the final insult" to species that were already in trouble because of dams downriver.

"For 15 years, we have tried everything imaginable to bring back these species," said Bosse, who represents Idaho Rivers United. "We've put young fish in barges and in trucks, and taken them below the lowermost dam. We've spent $3 billion on barges and hatcheries and habitat improvement and reservoir flushing. And fish numbers have declined by 90 percent."

Where as many as 16 million adult salmon once ascended the Columbia River system for spawning, no more than 1 million salmon do so today - and 800,000 of those are hatchery fish. "Eighty percent of them are swimming back to a hatchery, not back to a wild mountain stream," Farling said.

"Central Idaho was once, not so many years ago, the most productive salmon and steelhead fishery in the world," he said. Now 12 species of Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The federal government - The Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bonneville Power Administration - must find a way to recover the migratory runs. (Salmon and steelhead are anadromous fish. They are born in fresh water, migrate downstream to the ocean, mature in salt water, then return to their freshwater birthplace to spawn.)

One of the options is to breach the earthen portions of the lower Snake River dams, leaving the hydroelectric plants in place, but restoring the river's run. Farling and Bosse, among others, believe the fish would respond.

"By far the best chance that these fish have to recover is to breach those dams," Farling said. "The American Fisheries Society agrees. The governor of Oregon agrees."

Farling said western Montanans have a larger stake in salmon and steelhead recovery than some might realize. Some Montana electric ratepayers must help finance the recovery effort, as the costs are added to BPA's rate base. "If you use power generated or marketed by Bonneville Power Administration, then you're paying for this recovery effort," he said, "and so far, you haven't gotten anything for your money."

In recent years, Montana's Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse Reservoir have been forced to flush water downstream in the spring and summer to help salmon fry migrate through the lower Columbia River system. The late August releases dewater the reservoirs and leave biologically rich shorelines high and dry, Bosse said.

"If we do the right thing for the Snake River fish and take out the dams, then we won't need to send that water downstream from Montana," Farling said. "We think there is a larger demonstrated benefit overall for salmon and steelhead from dam removal than from sending these little blasts of water downstream."

Of course, dam breaching has not been well received in Lewiston, which became an inland port because of the lower Snake River dams. Barges carry grain and wood products from Lewiston to Portland on the Snake's slackwater. If the dams are breached, the port will move to Pasco.

Farling, though, suggests that federal dollars could help Lewiston recover from its lost port. But nothing, he said, will bring back salmon and steelhead runs that go extinct.

"That's the one irreversible event," he said. "We can rebuild economies. We can even rebuild dams. But we cannot bring a fish back from extinction."

Sherry Devlin
Dams Hang in the Balance of Salmon Debate
Missoulian, March 1, 2000

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