the film
Commentaries and editorials

Officials Rehash Salmon Plan

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, June 5, 2005

States, feds look for way to satisfy judge, preserve cheap power

(Army Corps of Engineers) National Marine Fisheries Service scientists invented barging as a method of helping salmon through the lower Snake River dams, but many other scientists question its effectiveness. Above, a barge for juvenile fish heads toward Little Goose Dam on the lower Snake. Federal agencies and the governors of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana are trying to forge a salmon-protection plan that would meet a federal judge's approval and preserve cheap Northwest hydro power.

Several of the governors and the staffs of all four have been meeting behind closed doors with Bonneville Power Administration Administrator Steve Wright and other federal officials seeking short- and long-term solutions for operating the region's federal hydroelectric power system. The meetings come after U.S. District Judge James Redden on May 26 rejected the Bush administration's plan for operating 14 dams throughout the Columbia Basin because of the dams' effects on 12 stocks of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

Redden will hold a hearing Friday to hear arguments that he should put in place a stricter interim salmon-protection plan while the federal agencies decide whether to appeal his decision or write a new plan. Salmon advocates will ask Redden to impose a plan that sends water from Idaho over the dams to help fish avoid a fatal trip through the power-generating turbines. The governors hope to offer Redden their own alternative for immediate salmon protection that doesn't take water away from power generation and a long-term plan that doesn't require the breaching of four dams on the Snake River in

Washington state.

The legal jockeying comes as the politics over dam-breaching and salmon recovery are heating up. The number of returning salmon this spring -- especially those salmon that must negotiate the four Snake River dams as well as the four on the Columbia -- is down dramatically from previous years. And on Monday, the U.S. House Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power will hold a hearing in Clarkston, Wash., to focus on the value of the four lower Snake River dams.

The stakes couldn't be higher for Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. The federal dams tied up in the lawsuit provide nearly half of the electricity that powers the nearly $400 billion economies of the four states. Millions of acres of farmland are irrigated from the Snake, Columbia and their tributaries, producing at least $3 billion in economic activity. Barges haul millions of tons of grain and other products from Lewiston, meaning that northern Idaho and Washington communities depend on the locks and slackwater from the dams for their livelihoods.

Salmon represent the wild character of the region that provides the basis for sport- and commercial-fishing industries that generate more than $3 billion dollars annually, as well as food and spiritual sustenance to its Indian people.

Secret talks anger some

"We have been making some progress in our discussions and see this as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to craft a solution on how to manage the hydroelectric system," Washington Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire said after a May 26 meeting with Oregon Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and federal officials.

Indian tribes and other salmon advocates that teamed up with Oregon to win in Redden's court are unhappy they have been left out of the talks between the governors and federal agencies. Closed-door meetings that excluded some of the interested parties are why the Bush administration ended up with a plan under legal assault, said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

"We're deeply disappointed," Hudson said.

Mike Carrier, Kulongoski's natural resources adviser, said if the governors reach an agreement, he and others would immediately meet with the tribes to try to bring them on board.

"The story of fish recovery has been as much a story about the failure of the relationships between the parties as it has been a failure to restore fish," Carrier said.

In fact, he said, that's one of the goals of the governors' talks: "How do we permanently fix these relationships so we aren't permanently fighting over these issues?"

Kulongoski dropped in on the BPA's Wright Thursday and met face-to-face with Gregoire the week before. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has been out of the country on a trade mission, but his staff has been involved in the talks.

"Idaho is taking part to make sure its interests are served," said Mike Journee, Kempthorne's press secretary.

Three of the four governors -- Kulongoski, Gregoire and Montana's Brian Schweitzer -- are Democrats. Salmon advocates say they are especially disappointed to be left out by the people they helped elect.

"You would think it would be important to them to include the industry responsible for 36,500 jobs in three states," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Plans could tap Idaho water

The coalition of salmon advocates that successfully challenged the Bush salmon plan include fishermen, fishing businesses, environmentalists and tribes. That coalition is asking Redden to approve a plan that would increase the amount of water required from Idaho reservoirs to speed flows in the Snake and Columbia through the dams to aid fall chinook and steelhead migration this summer. It also wants Redden to require that much of the water is spilled over the dams to carry the fish away from the turbines that generate electricity but chew up fish.

Spilling water over dams instead of through power-generating turbines comes at a cost. The loss of water for electricity under the advocates' plan could cost $100 million this year for the public utilities that get to buy power for what it costs BPA to produce it. "These additional costs would have to be borne by Northwest ratepayers," Wright said.

Boise and most southwest Idaho residents get their power from Idaho Power Co. and generally would not be affected by a BPA rate increase. But about 20 percent of Idaho does get its power from BPA, mostly through rural electric cooperatives and the city of Idaho Falls.

And there are other potential effects on Idaho. Any interim plan that imposes fewer dam-specific measures or improvements could mean more upstream effects -- such as taking water from Brownlee Reservoir behind the Idaho utility's Hells Canyon Project. Releases from Dworshak Dam on the Clearwater River near Orofino and increased spending for habitat projects are other options BPA has offered in the past in its efforts to prevent spills and other measures to aid fish directly at the dams.

All of these measures are part of the recovery program Redden rejected May 26.

Calls for tough measures

The salmon advocates' strategy is to get Redden to institute tougher interim measures now that will force the region to accept long-term, transformative measures later, including the breaching of the four lower Snake dams. Those tough interim measures could include drawing down reservoirs behind big Columbia River dams, such as John Day and The Dalles in north-central Oregon.

Such measures could be even more costly than breaching the four Snake dams, because draw-downs would dramatically reduce the amount of power these large dams produce. Because these dams generate power from water stored in their reservoirs, the power they produce can be regulated quickly to meet changing demands.

That makes them extremely valuable as Northwest power producers. By contrast, the four lower Snake dams are less valuable, because they don't store water and generate power only when water is available. In short, advocates back breaching the four dams because they are the lowest-value power producers and because they limit fish access to what historically has been some of the Northwest's best spawning habitat.

Some people want salmon and dams protected

Salmon have survived about 10,000 years, since the retreat of the last Ice Age. They are born in Idaho rivers, spend their first year in freshwater streams here, then migrate to the ocean for a couple of years before returning to spawn in the waters where they hatched.

Even some people who don't want to see the dams breached want the federal government to meet its financial and physical commitments to protect salmon.

The governors should "hold the federal agencies' feet to the fire," said Owen Squires, director of Rocky Mountain Region for Pulp and Paperworkers Resource Council, who is active in the Lewiston-based group Save our Dams.

He and his group oppose breaching dams because the dams, their locks and deep waters are important to the Washington and Idaho industries that depend on shipping up the Columbia. The reservoirs also provide popular water recreation.

"No one wants to protect salmon more than I do. They are important to all of us," Squires said. "I just really feel dam breaching is a risky thing."

Rocky Barker
Competing Interests Complicate Finding a Way to Save Salmon Runs
The Idaho Statesman, June 5, 2005

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation