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We have spent billions of dollars to help recover salmon

Have We Been Successful?

by Bruce Lovelin - Executive Director, Columbia River Alliance
WHEAT LIFE July 1999

'It now appears from this research that the Snake River dams and reservoirs are less a problem for the movement of juvenile fish toward the ocean than was previously believed'

John Etchart, Chairman, Northwest Power Planning Council

A hidden tax -- every time you turn on an electric light, a heater, or even a pump you are contributing to the region's salmon recovery effort. As residents of the Pacific Northwest, our electric bills are "taxed" about 10 percent for salmon recovery. This amounts to $400-million per year. Since 1980, Northwest citizens and businesses have paid about $3-billion that makes salmon recovery the most expensive program in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

The federal agency that markets electric power from the region's hydroelectric dams, the Bonneville Power Administration, is the principle taxing entity for salmon recovery expenses. Although it can be argued that these costs are simply environmental mitigation for dam operations it can also be argued it is a massive subsidy program for state and federal fishery agencies, tribal entities, commercial fisherman, and the tens of thousands of employees, contractors, biologists, and lawyers that are part of this new industry.

Mitchell Act

As early as 1900, we have been fighting the decline of salmon and devising methods for improving their survival, mainly to maitain a commercial fishery. Well before the construction of Bonneville Dam, gill nets, purse seines, and fish wheels supplied the canneries that lined the Columbia River with salmon. Hatcheries were viewed as the salvation to maintain nature's bounty. In 1938, Congress passed the Mitchell Act to "provide for the conservation of the fishery resources of the Columbia River." The Act provided federal funding to construct and operate 22 hatcheries and rearing ponds and maintain about 700 fish screens at irrigation diversions.

A long history of salmon enhancement

1995 to 1999 funding -- $14- to $18- million per year
Hatchery production 1995: 102-million juvenile salmon
1996: 63-million juvenile salmon
1997: 61-million juvenile salmon

With the construction of Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in the late 1930s, a new form of salmon mortality occurred. Although some dams allowed adult salmon passage, Grand Coulee, Dworshak, and Hells Canyon dams did not, and became permanent barriers for salmon passage. The eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers (Bonneville to Lower Granite dams) were all constructed with a full complement of adult fish ladders and other facilities necessary for successful adult salmon migration. Initially, juvenile salmon migrating downstream had one of two migration paths at a dam: through a turbine or spilled over the dam. Both paths created mortality for juvenile salmon.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to explore methods of improving turbine passage survival. However, as it was later determined, this passage route was undesirable. The Corps and fisheries agencies began to investigate passage of juvenile salmon around the turbines by passage through ice and trash sluiceways. This was the beginning of a 30-year effort that ultimately led to the construction of a complex turbine intake screening system, smolt bypass, and transport system.

Today, multi-million-dollar efforts are still aimed at improving salmon passage survival at dams. These include continued enhancement of bypass systems, examining surface collectors, reducing the harmful effects of spill, and operating turbines in a more "fish friendly" manner. These projects are very expensive and, since 1995, have cost about $100-million per year, paid for by Northwest electric ratepayers.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers answers question: is it true that federal dams are responsible for 95 percent of the human-caused mortality to salmon? Answer: no. This figure was inaccurately stated at the Salmon Summit conference in 1990, and has been widely quoted by the media. The Corps traced this figure to fishery research from 1973. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that in 1973, 95 percent of the salmon migrating from the Salmon River perished before they reached the Dalles Dam. Most of the loss was attributed to passage through dams and reservoirs in the very low flow years. However, it is recognized that some mortality occurred before the predominately wild fish reached Little Goose Reservoir, the upper-most dam at the time.

In the 1970s, juvenile fish mortality through the hydropower system ranged from a high of 99 percent in 1977, a severe drought year, to about 70 percent in good flow years. In recent years, 50 to 60 percent of chinook (90 percent of which are how hatchery fish) have been lost before they reach Lower Granite Dam, the uppermost dam now. Since 1989, federal fisheries agencies have found that up to 78 percent of wild fish marked in the previous summer did not reach the reservoir the following spring. This mortality is likely due to the marked decline in the quality of spawning and rearing habitat since the 1940s.

Salmon enhancement projects have been successful

Efforts over the last 25 years have significantly improved fish passage through the hydropower system. Currently, the juvenile fish mortality high is about 50 percent. This year Pit-Tag (Passive Integrated Transponder) studies showed that mortality could be as low as 32 percent.

The 95 percent mortality figure from 1973 is no longer accurate due to improvements such as the following:

  1. In 1973, nearly all fish went through turbines. Today, fish screens at seven of the eight dams divert 50 to 95 percent of the fish into bypass systems. Survival through these systems ranges from 98 to 99.5 percent. There are juvenile bypass systems at all eight dams.
  2. Juvenile transportation systems of barges and trucks now carry about 50 percent of fish around dams and reservoirs, avoiding in-river mortality.
  3. Turbines used to operate over 115 percent overload most of the time. They now run within one percent of peak efficiency nearly all the time. This reduces the turbine-related mortality b one half -- from 15 percent to 6 or 7 percent.
  4. No predation control was practiced in 1973. Since 1990, various programs have significantly reduced squawfish populations.
  5. Flow agumentation measures and improved in-river bypass systems are now in place to get fish to dams sooner and past more dams quickly.

New NMFS research claims high in-river salmon survival

Bill Muir, NMFS biologist and researcher from Seattle, recently provided the region with a good news story on the latest salmon research. Muir reported on the latest survival data using the high tech Pit-Tag data. NMFS concluded in-river migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead (those not transported around the dams) survival from Lower Granite Dam to Bonneville Dam is now between 50 and 60 percent -- a significant increase from earlier survival levels measured in the 1970s. NMFS also found that barged fish survive to release at levels exceeding 99 percent.

Salmon recovery program has one fundamental and fatal flaw

Despite good intentions of those involved in salmon recovery, our Northwest salmon recovery effort is too narrowly focused. Three independent science panels have concluded that successful salmon recovery requires implementing actions in all life stages of the salmon. Some call this a "gravel to gravel" approach, while others say it is a comprehensive "4-h" plan, which includes improvements in habitat, harvest, hatcheries and hydro life stages. As descrived in this WHEAT LIFE series, it should now be obvious that the region's fishery agencies appear fixated on the hydro system. Almost 100 percent of the 1990s salmon recovery efforts have been directed at only one 'H' - Hydro.

The $3-billion spent on the hydro portion of the salmon's lifecycle has clearly improved salmon survival through the dams but it has not recovered the salmon.

Fisheries biologist and member of the National Research Council's science team, Dr. Don Chapman, said salmon survival has decreased fourteen fold since the 1960s. He credits a variety of factors such as high populations of marine mammals, Caspian terns, squaw-fish and other predators, along with negative effects of hatchery fish, poor ocean productivity and reduced nutrients in upstream natal streams. It is important to note that federal agencies still allow non-selective salmon harvest methods such as gill nets to be used on the Columbia River. In addition to reducing the salmon numbers, gill nets destroy the genetic diversity of the salmon by reducing size. Ultimately, this effects the ability of the salmon to swim almost 900 miles into central Idaho to spawn.

Federal officials prepare secret plan to increase BPA salmon costs to $900-million per year!

A secret May 7, 1999 federal document was distributed to a wider audience than intended. The document described federal plans to impose a $1-billion-per-year salmon recovery plan, to be paid by Northwest citizens. Authors of the document, the National Marine Fisheries Sevice, Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Treasury believe the Bonneville Power Administration should develop a multi-billion-dollar dam removal fund now.

The federal paper describes a future implementation of two salmon recovery options. Natural river draw-down (four Snake River dam removal) would cost Northwest ratepayers $658-million per year in the 2002 to 2006 period and $958-million per year from 2007 to 2012.

The second option would add $2-billiion dissolved gas abatement facilities at Northwest dams during the 2002 to 2012 time period. The four lower Snake dams would be removed in 2011. The 2002 to 2006 costs are $783-million per year and $915-million per year during the 2007 to 2012 period.

Next Month: "Is dam removal really necessary? Is there a better plan for salmon recovery?"

For every dollar paid for your electric bill, 10 cents goes for salmon recovery

BPA Fish and Wildlife Costs
Year Million $  
1978-80 41.3 XXXX
1981 20.2 XX
1982 42.5 XXXX
1983 40.2 XXXX
1984 72.2 XXXX|XX
1985 99.5 XXXX|XXXX|
1986 158.4 XXXX|XXXX|XXXX|
1987 100.4 XXXX|XXXX|
1988 118.8 XXXX|XXXX|XX
1989 133.5 XXXX|XXXX|XXX
1990 145.5 XXXX|XXXX|XXXX
1991 150.5 XXXX|XXXX|XXXX|
Source: BPA
1 Average funding under Salmon Cap Agreement
2 Proposed in FY 2000 president's budget

Bruce Lovelin - Columbia River Alliance - Comments, feedback, and questions are appreciated.
Agencies and Dams
WHEAT LIFE - p.39, July 1999

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