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Real Solutions Needed to Save Salmon and Steelhead

by John Barclay
Idaho Mountain Express - November 3, 1999

Here's a surprise: the people who want to breach dams aren't interested in saving salmon and steelhead runs. They want "natural" rivers -- i.e., rivers without dams. They couldn't care less about the fish; otherwise, they wouldn't be advocating a measure that would certainly kill them off.

And let's be honest here: when those who want to remove four dams from the lower Snake River talke about "partially breaching" them, they mean destroying them.

"Partially breaching" is like "slightly murdering." Dead is dead. Breached is breached. Destroyed is destroyed. "A little bit pregnant" is pregnant.

"Removing the earthen portion of the dams" is another one. Those non-threatening words are meant to soften the impact, but it's still breaching and it still destroys completely any function a dam provides. People use these euphemisms because they don't want to cause a reaction to what is, actually, a drastic, expensive and risky measure.

And it's a measure that can't work. The political will to remove dams simply isn't there. Even if it were, it would take a minimum of nine years before the first dam could come out. That's assuming Congress acts as speedily as possible, every federal and state agency involved does its job as rapidly as the law allows and nobody sues. How likely is that?

Then, allow from two to five years to flush out the silt that has accumulated behind the dams. After all that, according to the scientists, you MIGHT restore fish runs in another 48 years.

The fact of the matter is, those dams will still be there decades from now. Nearly everyone agrees the runs will not survive for that long. So if we're going to save Idaho's salmon and steelhead, we'd better stop focusing on breaching dams and start paying attention to realistic, workable ways to do it.

There is no "silver bullet" -- no single action we can take that will succeed in saving the runs. But workable solutions exist, and combinations of some of those solutions show a lot of promise.

Several folks, including many of Idaho's tribes, are already using some of them. One is small, instream hatch-boxes. These protect the fish until they're large enough to avoid many predators, afford them access to nourishment and acclimate them to the particular stream so they'll return to spawn there years later.

When salmon spawn naturally, only about 10 percent of the eggs will survive to become fry. Instream hatch boxes can achieve 90 percent survival.

Another action that will help the fish is more effective screening of diversions, such as irrigation canals and turbine inlets. If salmon enter diversions and spawn, the eggs will be dewatered at the end of the irrigation season. Current screening systems sometimes actually harm some of the fish they divert.

One Idaho company, Hydrologics, Inc., is working with Ballaton Energy Corp. on a low-cost device that uses simple, passive methods to increase water velocity and divert the fish. The system can be coupled with a low-head hydro installation to help offset its costs.

Another approach is engineered bypass streams. These can carry fish past dams in natural conditions and provide both rearing and migration habitat. The rearing habitat in an engineered stream can provide natural cover, optimum feeding conditions, lower summer temperatures and reduced predation.

Engineered streams also allow historic migratory timing accuracy, can reduce predation and can eliminate dam mortality all together. The morality caused by nitrogen superstation resulting from spilling water over the dams--a current measure of helping fish get past the dams--would also be eliminated. Prototypes of engineered streams have been built in Canada, and the work.

Such technological solutions don't appeal to those who will only be satisfied with a "natural river." But the truth is, it wouldn't be possible to turn the Columbia-Snake system back into the river it was before dams. We've altered that environment forever--created new wetlands, silted in former inlets and so forth. If we're to save the fish, it will take new technology.

The approaches outlined here and others need attention and money. Until now, those resources have been focused on the "partial breaching" fantasy. Isn't it about time we started talking about options that can actually work?

by John Barclay
Real Solutions Needed to Save Salmon and Steelhead
Guest Opinion, Idaho Mountain Express, November 3, 1999

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