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U.S. Giving a Lift to Salmon,
But Future of Aid Is in Doubt

by Sam Howe Verhovek
New York Times, May 6, 2000

LOWER GRANITE DAM, Wash. -- For roughly half of the millions of salmon born on the Snake River that set out each spring for the Pacific Ocean, the journey past four federal dams is an arduous and often lethal one. They can be whacked to death by giant blades of the dam turbines, knocked out from collisions with concrete spillways, or succumb to a fatal condition not unlike the bends.

The other half of the salmon have a much simpler trip: They get to take the boat.

But this annual free ride, by which the United States Army Corps of Engineers loads the young fish on barges and totes them around the dams, is coming under scrutiny like never before. And for scientists, lawmakers, farmers, fishermen, American Indians, barge shippers, environmentalists and a breathtaking array of other interested parties, the assessment is most likely the key to a momentous decision that will ultimately fall to the Congress: whether to take down the Snake River dams altogether.

The job of protecting the baby salmon, so they can mature and breed, is a remarkable feat of engineering and an expensive -- critics say outlandish -- accommodation to man's demands for electricity.

Thousands of fish a day are diverted to a channel leading to a pipe that runs into troughs downstream of this dam, the first of the four, which is near the Idaho border. Standing by the troughs, a busy assembly line of seasonal workers briefly anesthetizes the salmon and then injects a computer chip the size of a rice grain into their bellies so they can be tracked over the years. They are barged for a 36-hour, 300-mile trip, bypassing the dams on the Snake and four more on the Columbia River. More salmon are collected at two other dams on the Snake and one on the Columbia.

It is all part of the government's bid to keep both salmon and dams -- "to find a way to have our cake and eat it, too," said Jim Anderson, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington.

But with the river's coho salmon already declared extinct, and every other species of Snake River salmon and steelhead now listed under the Endangered Species Act, the once-unthinkable idea of breaching the dams has emerged in several federal studies as the action with the best chance of restoring healthy salmon runs. The Corps of Engineers is to recommend by the end of the year whether to propose such a step.

Breaching the dams is bitterly opposed by many people as an assault on the area's agricultural economy, and the proposal has already emerged as a hot-button issue in the Northwest in this year's presidential race. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas vowed in the primary campaign here never to allow the dams to be breached, while Vice President Al Gore, part of an administration that is intensely debating the issue, has taken no public position.

Breaching the dams would mean removing the earthen parts and restoring a 140-mile section of the Snake to its wild, free-flowing condition, thus making salmon barging both impossible and unnecessary. It would also mean that the 4 percent of the electricity the dams provide in the Northwest would have to be supplied by other sources.

The cost of the 20-year-old barging program for juvenile salmon, known as smolts, is just part of more than $3 billion the government has spent over that period trying to save salmon on the Snake and Columbia Rivers.

The barging program is derided by critics as a "techno-fix" that harms fish, interfering with their natural migration rhythms, causing them to die early, and perhaps interfering with their fabled and mysterious ability to find their way back home to spawn in their native river after spending years and traveling thousands of miles in the Pacific Ocean, as far north as Alaska.

Supporters of barging defend it as a kind of magic solution that could allow the salmon and the dams to coexist. And the National Marine Fisheries Service, one of several federal agencies that must weigh in on the fate of the dams, recently said that a decision on breaching could be put off for 5 to 10 years if barging was continued and other aggressive conservation measures undertaken.

So far, however, the results are hardly encouraging. While a corps brochure boasts that the barging system is "custom-made to make the trip as safe and comfortable as possible," and while 98.5 percent of smolts survive the trip, the salmon themselves remain in decline.

In most recent years, just 0.5 percent to 1 percent of all Snake River salmon have made it out to the ocean and all the way back, jumping through a ladder system that bypasses the dams, to their original spawning grounds. That is much less than the roughly 4 percent that scientists say the salmon stocks would need to recover fully.

Researchers are unsure what percentages of barged and nonbarged fish are making it back, a question that the microchips implanted in recent years are supposed to help answer. (Some fish implanted with the chips are caught years later by fishermen, and ultimately served in restaurants; corps biologist said the chips are implanted in a part of the fish that is not consumed by humans.) But for many environmentalists, the numbers suggest that the barging efforts are not enough.

"In a way, this issue about the difference in survival of transported fish versus fish that migrate through the river is a red herring," said Rob Masonis, regional director of hydropower programs for American Rivers, a conservation group. "The fundamental question is whether either of those classes of fish are making it back to the Snake River at levels that would lead to survival or recovery. And the answer is clearly no."

Still, there is no scientific consensus on how large a culprit the dams are in the salmon's decline. Other factors are cyclical ocean conditions, commercial fishing and erosion of habitat all along the rivers where the salmon spawn, which is caused by construction, run-off from farms and other factors.

At this point, the dams on the Columbia are not candidates for breaching.

And early counts indicate that the Snake River may this year see some of the highest numbers in recent years of returning adult chinook salmon, a result that would not take them off the endangered listing, but might lead supporters of barging to argue for more time to see if the program can work.

Moreover, no scientist can guarantee that taking the dams down would revive the salmon runs the explorer William Clark found in the Snake River two centuries ago, when he wrote in his diary that the river was "crouded with salmon."

At that time, biologists estimate, about two million adult salmon a year completed the epic journey back to their spawning grounds; in most recent years, that number has been measured in the thousands or only the hundreds for some types of salmon.

There is no question that, compared with those fish that have to navigate through the dams, a much higher percentage of salmon survive the barge trip, which drops them off just downstream of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, the last man-made impediment before the fish can reach the Pacific.

But as the tugboat Umatilla made its way down the Snake the other day, pushing a barge loaded, by the government's count, with 254,317 smolts, corps biologists said they were still gathering data on whether barging contributed to a much higher rate of what they termed "delayed mortality" among salmon transported that way.

"With one big caveat, if I were a fish, I'd rather be here than there," said Doug Arndt, chief of the regional fish management division for the corps, standing aboard the barge and pointing to the dam on the river.

"And that caveat is disease transmission," Mr. Arndt said. "Is this program enhancing disease in these fish? We just don't know enough about it."

Jim Baker, the Northwest salmon campaign coordinator for the Sierra Club, said there were many ways in which barging could be harmful to fish, despite the fact that such high percentages survive the short trip itself.

"For one thing, these barges are running on a human schedule, rather than the fishes' schedule," Mr. Baker said. "There's a great deal of evidence that these fish are released too soon below the Bonneville Dam, so that they enter a salt water estuary too early in their development."

Professor Anderson of the University of Washington says that there is not enough research to show if barged fish die in much greater numbers than others.

"There are a lot of hypotheses and no real ways to measure the mechanisms that might be producing this extramortality," Mr. Anderson said. "So people are really making arguments on things for which we don't have enough information yet."

The fish transportation program started on an experimental basis in 1968 with trucks, and has been in full operation with barges since 1981.

While the fisheries service is expected to recommend waiting for several years before a decision is made, the federal Environmental Protection Agency told the corps recently that the four dams harmed the river's water quality, endangered the salmon and might have to be breached to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. (Under the 1972 act, the E.P.A. has the power to enforce water-quality standards.)

Opinions remain impassioned on both sides. The Columbia River Alliance, representing other commercial users of the river, said the breaching proposal was "an economic dark cloud hanging over these communities that depend on dams."

But at a hearing on dam breaching in Seattle this winter, one fisherman said he did not want delays or stop-gap measures or "Army Corps of Engineers Rube Goldberg barges." The solution, he said, was to "let the Snake River flow."

by Sam Howe Verhovek
U.S. Giving a Lift to Salmon, But Future of Aid Is in Doubt
New York Times, May 6, 2000

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