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Commentaries and editorials

It's Time for the Region to Start Thinking

by Michael Garrity, American Rivers
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 21, 2006

Last month's letter from Fred Mensik (CBB 6/23/06) responds to a CBB article in which I was quoted as saying that restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River would allow for a more cost-effective and biologically effective plan to recover Snake River salmon.

Mr. Mensik doesn't directly challenge this statement. Rather, his letter focuses on the fact that the lower Snake dams were not the only factor in the decline of Snake River sockeye over the last century. While Mr. Mensik is of course correct about that, it doesn't change a fact that is more relevant to decisions that will be made in the near future: recovering sockeye and other anadromous fish in the Snake Basin requires addressing the factors that are currently preventing their recovery.

Today, survival through the hydrosystem is the biggest factor limiting the recovery of all four species of Snake River salmonids listed under the Endangered Species Act. The 2004 Biological Opinion found that the hydrosystem kills an average of 49-86 percent of outmigrating juvenile salmon and steelhead (depending on the species). Even if that BiOp had been fully implemented, juvenile mortality would remain at 47-84 percent.

That's why the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP), in its recommendation to discontinue funding the Snake River sockeye hatchery program, based its conclusion in large part on the following statement: "Since there has been no response by the [sockeye] populations to recovery efforts in the [Stanley] Basin, it is clear that conditions outside the Basin determine the fate of these fish, and there is no evidence that these conditions are likely to improve significantly in the foreseeable future."

If lower Snake River dam removal was receiving serious consideration during the current rewrite of the BiOp, the ISRP might be less pessimistic. Removing the lower Snake dams would go a long way toward addressing hydrosystem mortality, not only for the teetering Snake River sockeye population, but also for the other three listed Snake River salmon and steelhead populations. While the condition of sockeye necessitates preventing extinction before recovery is in sight, recovering the other three Snake River stocks to self-sustaining, harvestable levels is possible in the foreseeable future if hydrosystem impacts are sufficiently reduced. Abundant intact spawning habitat awaits spring/summer chinook, steelhead, and sockeye in the Idaho wilderness if only more of them could make it back there. And lower Snake dam removal would more than double available mainstem spawning habitat for Snake River fall chinook.

The federal government is in the process of spending about $6 billion of taxpayer and ratepayer money over 10 years to maintain hydrosystem operations that the ISRP implied will doom Snake River sockeye to extinction and which may well preclude the success of regionally developed salmon recovery plans for the other Snake River stocks. Removing the four lower Snake dams and fully replacing their benefits would be less expensive and more effective than the non-dam removal alternatives and can be done in a manner that provides more certainty and opportunity for communities and economies from Stanley to Astoria and points in between.

It's time for the region to start thinking about the restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River as an opportunity to address pressing issues with the inland Northwest's grain transportation system, diversify its energy portfolio, bring new business to rural communities, and restore two of the region's greatest assets: the lower Snake River and its salmon. I invite Mr. Mensik and other CBB readers to visit to look at the information we have posted on potential ways to replace the dams' benefits and seize the opportunities presented by a healthy river and healthy salmon runs. This information is just a start, but it shows that with real leadership and meaningful collaboration (both of which are unfortunately missing so far in the BiOp rewrite process), workable solutions are out there.

Michael Garrity, American Rivers
It's Time for the Region to Start Thinking
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 21, 2006

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