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Dam Breaching Isn't the Answer

by Mark Gendron, Guest Commentary
Idaho Falls Post Register, November 8, 2003

The effort to breach four dams on the lower Snake River
in order to save imperiled salmon is a distraction.

Recently, a group of elected officials in Washington, D.C., called for the removal of the lower Snake River dams. Most of those signing the letter to President Bush are from the Northeast/Midwest Coalition, a group bent on eliminating benefits that the Pacific Northwest enjoys from the operation of the federal hydro system. The group sees the system as a largess from the federal government. In truth, electric rates paid by consumers cover the capital costs, as well as the operation and maintenance, of the hydro system.

Others signing the letter support removing the dams as an easy pro-environment vote that won't get them in trouble with their hometown constituents.

The Bush administration was not ordered to rewrite the salmon recovery plan, as J. Robb Brady claims in his Oct. 28 editorial. That plan is still in effect. It was sent back to a federal agency because of a technicality identified by lawyers for environmentalists regarding the definition of "Action Area." The plan covers activities on federal hydroelectric projects. The environmentalists want to expand the plan to limit activities on private lands, such as irrigation, farming and logging. They are threatening a lawsuit that would pit irrigators against electric consumers and navigators, trying to divide the people of Idaho and reduce support for the lower Snake River dams. From recent editorials, it appears they are doing just that.

(bluefish adds the following) U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden in a May opinion wrote that "NOAA's reliance on federal range-wide, off-site mitigation actions that have not undergone section 7 consultation and non-federal range-wide, off-site mitigation actions which are not reasonably certain to occur was improper and, as to eight of the salmon ESUs, the no-jeopardy opinion in the RPA is arbitrary and capricious." The judge remanded the BiOp to NOAA so that the flaws could be corrected.
The environmentalists want the irrigators to flush more water downstream to help out-migrating salmon and steelhead reach the ocean. Adding hot water from upper river basins is the best way to turn the lower Snake into a series of warm, slack-water pools. The Dworshak Reservoir is drafted each summer to increase instream flows. Recent evaluations show that the value of the reservoir's water is to cool the lower Snake River in the height of summer, thereby protecting late migrating salmon. Increasing the amount of water from the upper Snake basin will actually harm fish in the lower part of the river.

The lower Snake River dams are not the primary problem for salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. Approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of juvenile fish out-migrating from the Columbia River each year disappear between each dam. Predation by other fish and wildlife is a primary culprit. Caspian terns consumed an estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of all the steelhead out-migrating from the Snake River basin in recent years. Northern pikeminnow eat so many juvenile salmon that the Bonneville Power Administration spent $1 million this year on a bounty program. Seals and sea lions eat about 1 percent to 2 percent of the adult salmon returning to the river.

Commercial and tribal fishermen still use gill nets that do not discriminate between wild and hatchery fish. In a recent gill net test fishery, commercial fishers killed many wild steelhead along with the chinook salmon they were targeting. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently increased the daily recreational bag limit on wild Hanford Reach fall chinook salmon from two to four fish.

Salmon and steelhead stocks in the Pacific Northwest are experiencing an astounding comeback. The chief factor is the improvement in ocean conditions. Upwelling of cooler, more nutrient-rich water along the continental shelf has greatly improved the rearing conditions for juvenile salmon and steelhead entering the ocean. The cooler water also moves predatory fish farther south, away from the Columbia River estuary.

Up and down the coast, from California to Puget Sound, salmon are returning in such numbers that recreational anglers are able to catch as many as six salmon a day on some Washington rivers. Commercial fishermen in California are giving away their catch instead of accepting paltry sums from processors. Excess fish returning to hatcheries are being taken by the dump-truck load to fish food plants to be turned into pellets to feed farmed fish.

Many of the fish returning are of hatchery origin and do not count, according to the Endangered Species Act. But even the wild fish are coming back in record numbers. Lower Columbia River chum salmon have increased from an average return of 300 to 500 adult fish in the past 40 years to more than 35,000 wild adult fish in 2002. The 2003 run should be even larger. Although still too small, populations of wild chinook in the Columbia and Snake rivers are experiencing a tenfold increase from the returns observed in the 1990s. Wild steelhead populations returning to Idaho have increased from 10,000 per year in the 1990s to almost 60,000 adult fish in 2002. The total combined wild and hatchery steelhead population crossing the Lower Granite Dam has increased from 50,000 to more than 250,000 in the same time period. Granted, the chinook salmon are not doing as well and sockeye are in severe risk of extinction. The causes, however, can be traced to things other than the lower Snake River dams.

The BPA spends about $600 million each year of ratepayer money to protect fish and wildlife in the Columbia and Snake river basins. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, about $30 million worth of water is spilled over federal dams to produce five more wild adult Snake River fall chinook salmon. There are other, more efficient and less expensive ways to preserve salmon. Recent data indicate that fish transported by barge come back at a higher rate than fish that migrate in-river. With the addition of the removable spillway weir at Lower Granite Dam, fish pass more efficiently and safely, and at a significant cost savings, as compared with the old spill program. The Corps of Engineers is now looking to add these structures to other dams.

Spending millions, if not billions, of ratepayer dollars on removing the four lower Snake River dams while ignoring other reasonably solvable problems is a waste of money. Rearing conditions in the ocean will decline again as they did in the 1990s. The region still needs to work hard on improving the freshwater conditions for salmon and steelhead in order to protect these valuable species when that time comes. Continuing to insist on removal of the lower Snake dams is a distraction and only takes away from practical and cost-effective measures that will actually help the fish. Isn't that what we really want?

Related Pages:
A Warning for Irrigators by J. Robb Brady, Post Register, 10/29/3

by Mark Gendron is director of Idaho Falls Power. You can write to him at 140 S. Capital Ave., Idaho Falls, ID 83402.
Dam Breaching Isn't the Answer
Post Register, November 8, 2003

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