Expert Changes His Mind:
by Rocky Barker
Fisheries biologist Don Chapman says the impacts of global warming on the region
call for drastic action if Idaho's salmon are to survive
MCCALL -- For 25 years, biologist Don Chapman has defended the hydroelectric industry's technological fish bypass systems as adequate to prevent salmon from going extinct.
Chapman, a well-respected fisheries biologist and long-time consultant for electric utilities, now says the warming of the Columbia River and its tributaries and potential ocean changes from global warming call for drastic action if Idaho's salmon are to survive or flourish. Chapman says removing four dams will reduce the cumulative effects on salmon so they can survive the increasingly hazardous migration route.
"Regional warming makes breaching imperative," Chapman, 74, said in an interview at his McCall home.
Chapman, called the "guru" of salmon science in the Pacific Northwest, wants to breach the four lower Snake dams in Washington. Those dams produce less than 5 percent of the region's federal power -- enough to meet Seattle's needs -- and allow barge shipping of grain and other goods from Lewiston to Portland.
Breaching the dams is necessary, he said, because many residents value salmon and want the fish to survive in harvestable numbers. Salmon represent the region's wild heart and provide food and spiritual sustenance for Native Americans and a fishing industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Six years ago, Chapman led a minority that opposed breaching dams in the face of an overwhelming majority of members of the Idaho Section of the American Fisheries Society that said breaching the dams was necessary for restoring salmon.
Earlier this year, Chapman filed a declaration on behalf of public power companies challenging salmon advocates' plan to spill water over the dams to help the salmon migration. So when the man whose opinion that business and political leaders have rested their cases on for current salmon programs calls for a major reassessment, people listen.
"When Don says it, you kind of stand up and take notice," said Chuck Peven, fisheries program manager for the Chelan Public Utilities District in Washington, which operates dams on the Columbia. "He's only an advocate for the best science."
But Peven and other biologists who work in the utility industry aren't ready to accept Chapman's argument.
"It's a nice story, but there are a lot of linkages here that need to be examined thoroughly," said Al Georgi, a fisheries consultant who took over Chapman's business when he retired seven years ago.
"He's the guru of salmon resource science here in the Pacific Northwest and people must pay attention to what he has to say," Georgi said.
Robert Lohn, Northwest Regional Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, is intrigued by Chapman's shift.
"I have a great deal of respect for him as a biologist and I would be interested in understanding his reasoning," Lohn said.
Chapman said his current position is not just based on science but also politics.
"After 50 years in fisheries, I take that privilege," he said.
Chapman said the Bush administration's decision that the dams don't jeopardize the survival of salmon because they were there at the time the fish were listed under the Endangered Species Act "is so contrary to logic and common sense that I feel offended."
Warming is at the heart of his argument
Data shows the temperature of the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam has increased 1.5 degrees centigrade since 1938. Higher temperatures in the river increase stress, predation and disease, especially in fall chinook that migrate during summer.
Sockeye are migrating earlier to avoid the warm water, steelhead split their migration to avoid the warm river.
Also, spring chinook and steelhead will be losing habitat in tributaries that are warming, Chapman predicted, forcing them to move upstream. Finally, some scientists are worried about the collapse of productivity of the North Pacific ecosystem where salmon spend much of their lives.
"With warming, we are going to have to give salmon and steelhead in Idaho every break possible if they are to survive," Chapman said.
The other trigger to his new view was U.S. District Judge James Redden's May decision to strike down the Bush administration's plan for protecting salmon from federal dams. Redden ordered federal dam operators to spill water over the dams at a cost of $67 million this summer alone. The loss of that hydropower revenue and perhaps even more in the spring, "reduces the hydropower benefit of the lower Snake dams," Chapman said.
Chapman said Redden was wrong to order the spill, which reduced the number of salmon barged, and forced more to survive the warmer river this summer. Barging fish only benefits salmon in the driest years and not consistently, he said.
Over the long run, dam breaching will be cheaper than making investments in barging, fish bypass facilities and new technologies like removable spillway weirs, Chapman said. Many hatcheries also can be closed once the dams are gone.
Don't switch to fossil fuels
But before the dams should be breached, he said, railroads should be built to replace barge shipping to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
He advocates the building of nuclear power plants and not natural gas or coal plants to offset the lost electric power generation capacity. This would be necessary, he said, because the region continues to grow rapidly.
"Advocates of breaching cannot responsibly propose fossil-fuel substitution for lost hydropower," Chapman said. "I especially aim that comment at fish biologists, who are trained in holistic ecology."
Chapman's opinion doesn't sway Owen Squires, director of the Rocky Mountain Region for Pulp and Paperworkers Resource Council, who is active in the Lewiston-based group Save our Dams.
"Breaching those dams is a radical, one-way step," Squires said. "Once we do it, we can't reverse it."
But he agrees with Chapman on nuclear power and fossil fuels.
"If we had four nukes in the desert cranking out that power, part of the argument would be mute," Squires said. "But the same people who want us to breach the dams are the same people who want us to burn natural gas but don't want us to drill for more gas."
Even with breaching, salmon harvest will have to be strictly limited, Chapman said. He advocates a cooperative fishery that allows tribal members to catch hatchery salmon as they return to Bonneville Dam. That would eliminate losses of endangered wild salmon caught in the nets of fisherman targeting more abundant species.
Less water would be needed from Idaho
One group that would benefit from breaching is southern Idaho's water users, Chapman said. They currently send 427,000 acre-feet of water from southern Idaho reservoirs down the Snake River to aid salmon migration. Less, not more water, would be needed if the four dams were breached, he said.
However, Chapman would like to see some of the water used to irrigate the benches and lands now covered by the reservoirs behind the four dams. The irrigation would be used to anchor the silt with vegetation to reduce the amount that would be carried downriver.
He would keep those lands in federal ownership as wildlife areas.
John Rosholt, a Twin Falls attorney who represents the major canal companies serving southern Idaho, is a long-time friend of Chapman's who often has called on his consulting services for his clients.
"With Don Chapman now taking this position, certainly, all people concerned with the issue should re-examine the premises on which he's basing it," Rosholt said.
Why Chapman's opinion is significant:
Resume: Chapman is a biologist and former president of BioAnalysts and Don Chapman Consultants, Inc., who consulted for electric utilities across the Pacific Northwest including Idaho Power Co., Indian tribes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and environmental groups.
Before 1979, Chapman was an inland fishery and stock assessment biologist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program in Cartagena, Colombia, and Kigoma, Tanzania. Earlier, he was a professor and U.S. Fish and Wildlife fishery unit leader at the University of Idaho and a visiting professor at Montana State University and the University of Wisconsin.
Before 1963, he was director of research for the Oregon Fish Commission, executive secretary of the Oregon State Water Resources Research Institute, and coordinator of the Alsea Watershed Study.
Education: B.S. in forest management, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in fisheries from Oregon State University.
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