the film
Commentaries and editorials

Salmon and Dams

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, December 2005

Part 1
A brief history of everything

Portland Federal District Judge James Redden has injected himself into Columbia River salmon politics the way Judge William Dwyer did in the spotted owl-old growth logging dispute and Judge Malcolm Marsh in the salmon controversy of the early 1990s. Redden appears to be bucking for a place among judges who, along with environmentalist litigants, have engineered Endangered Species Act (ESA) "train wrecks."

Redden will, hopefully, be reversed by higher courts or, failing that, by presidential or congressional action. The legal and public interest basis for doing so is strong. Judicial inclination and political will are another matter. If nobody stops Redden, expect a major salmon mess, probably beginning in 2006. "Another Klamath" will be an entirely appropriate term for its economic consequences. The largest financial burden will be spread throughout the Northwest as higher than otherwise necessary electricity rates. Smaller in aggregate, but more sharply felt, will be impacts on ag communities if Redden moves against irrigation water supplies or Snake River dams, both likely possibilities.

"What else could we do" the bureaucrats said as they shut off irrigation water to 1400 farmers and 200 thousand acres in Oregon's Klamath Basin. "The law (ESA) gives fish senior rights and science says they need all the water." Six years protesting such arrogant nonsense makes me want a change. I will no longer separately discuss each new battle in the salmon war Judge Redden seems determined to start. Instead, I am beginning an in-depth treatment of the whole Columbia and Snake River salmon and dam issue. The several required columns will be interspersed with other topics in a sequence and frequency I have yet to establish.

I have been thinking about this for some time. My decision came when a friend asked a simple question, "What about the salmon?" I found myself unable to give a simple answer that was also complete and accurate. Nor could I recommend a suitable reference. People who don't make a living (or obsessive hobby) out of the Columbia River salmon issue deserve better information. To that end I begin this series.

Let's start with some history.

Salmon were to Pacific Coast natives what buffalo were to their interior brethren. Arriving predictably and in abundance, salmon filled stomachs and storerooms with modest effort. That left time and energy to create the rich native culture that is now part of Northwest history. Research suggests native people sometimes harvested local salmon populations to their biological limits.

Nineteenth century advances in food preservation technology opened Eastern U.S. markets to Pacific Coast fish, particularly salmon. The Columbia River salmon canning industry boomed. In 1883, 50 canners produced 40-million pounds of canned salmon. Using stationary traps and fish wheels, canners harvested salmon as they returned to spawning grounds then extending into Canada and tributaries like the Kettle and Spokane Rivers.

Lacking conservation limits, the early canners soon depleted their industry's resource base. By the early 20th century, salmon harvests were declining from California to Alaska. The U.S. and Canadian governments responded, though slowly. Fish traps and fish wheels were banned by Oregon in 1926 and Washington in 1934. Maturing harvest management programs converged with the Great Depression to reduce salmon harvests to biologically sustainable limits. By the 1950s, major Pacific Coast and Alaska salmon fisheries were effectively managed and salmon stocks were recovering.

The salmon-dam conflict began with the first mainstem Columbia River dam (Rock Island, 1933) and first federal dam (Bonneville, 1938). Grand Coulee Dam (1941) ended salmon spawning in the upper Columbia and its tributaries. These and subsequent projects included mitigation for lost salmon spawning habitat. In those days that meant hatcheries to supplement sport and commercial fisheries. I am sure many readers share my fond youthful memories of salmon fishing trips to the coastal Washington ports of Westport and Ilwaco during the 1950s and 1960s. The teeming schools of coho and chinook salmon that produced regular three-fish limits originated primarily in hatcheries built to mitigate dams built from the 1930s onward.

The next salmon milestone occurred in 1980, the year the Northwest Power Planning Act (NWPPA) created what is now called the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC).

Events following the enactment of NWPPA fundamentally changed the purpose and method of Columbia River salmon conservation. In developing their regional fish and wildlife plan, the law instructed the Council to defer to the professional judgment of state and other fish and wildlife agencies. Given prevailing attitudes within those agencies, that elevated biological integrity to equality (at least) with sport and commercial harvest maintenance among management goals. Roughly, biological integrity meant favoring "wild" (instream spawning) salmon over hatchery fish and preserving "natural" (pre-European settlement) salmon genetics and population structure.

The other major change involved funding. Under NWPPA, salmon mitigation expenditures were legally classified as costs of producing hydroelectric power, meaning they could be passed on to BPA ratepayers. By 2003, salmon program expenditures, including imputed costs of foregone power, totaled over $500-million annually. Total BPA power revenue that year was $4-billion. Cumulative (1978 to 2003) fish expenditures (including foregone power) now exceed $6-billion. Perhaps a later article in this series will explore where all that money went.

Whatever the answer to that question, NWPCC's formative period saw emergence of measures that now form the mainstay of "real" Columbia River salmon conservation. By "real" I mean in the field and water, not as described in anti-dam environmentalist rhetoric or ESA-speak.

More on these measures in following articles. For now the general formula was fix the dams, transport juveniles around harder-to-fix reservoirs, use hatchery technology to increase survival of juveniles produced by in-stream spawners, and divert water from other uses to flush in-stream migrating juveniles downstream during peak spring migration periods.

That's pretty much what has been done for the past quarter century. And it works. In 2001, more adult salmon passed upstream through the Bonneville Dam fish ladder than in any year since counting began with that dam's completion in 1938. We should not expect frequent repetition of such spectacular results. A more realistic hope is continuation (with cycles) of the past 10 good salmon years. When pressed, even anti-dam environmentalists concede the past decade's good salmon news has been shared by wild as well as hatchery fish, including the 12 wild populations listed under ESA.

A quarter century may seem like a long time to achieve a conservation goal. It's actually on the short side. The transition from uncontrolled salmon mining to rationally managed harvest spanned the first half of the 20th century. The Northwest's economic visionaries conceived the Columbia Basin project before World War I, when my father was a boy. The salmon hatcheries they included in their vision produced the salmon I caught with him as a young man, also a half century later.

When pressed about the ethical extremism and scientific dishonesty of many of their ESA-based campaigns, environmentalists often defend their rough tactics by claiming they are necessary to spur more moderate conservation measures by others. Parents attracted to such reasoning might consider hanging a bullwhip by the door to encourage more careful foot wiping and coat hanging.

It is historically true that ESA listing of Columbia River salmon was threatened during the late 1970s by environmental groups, as well as fisheries agencies and interests. What remains unknown is how important those threats were among the many forces leading to enactment of NWPPA. As its name implies, that law was primarily concerned with regional power production and marketing.

Untraveled paths leave no history. So we will never know for sure how salmon conservation would have fared had ESA never been enacted. My guess is it would have done just fine, as witnessed by the success of earlier efforts to regulate harvest and mitigate losses to sport and commercial fisheries. Zealous lawyers and judges swinging litigious whips may be required to extract economic sacrifice on behalf of animals that interest few other than dissertation writing zoology students and life list building birdwatchers. Such is not the case for Northwest salmon. Since the first human habitation, salmon have permeated whatever economy prevailed, from native subsistence to modern information based. In the slow, halting way of human institutions, salmon conservation has arisen from that recognition of value and dependance.

As there were salmon and salmon conservation long before ESA, so there will be after, and so there would have been had the law never existed. Salmon are safe in the Northwest for the same reason trees are safe in New York City, fallow deer are safe in England and grass carp in China, because people recognize and preserve what is important to them.

So much for good news. Next installment we will explore the thick, green fog that rolled in during the 1990s, from which today's "salmon crisis" emerged.

Related Pages:
Snake Fall Chinook Studies Get More Complicated by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/20/6

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.
Salmon and Dams
Wheat Life, December 2005

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