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Commentaries and editorials

Snake River Dams

by Rob Masonis
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 4, 2003

Before responding to Mr. McKern's attempted rebuttal of my comments the week before, let me first thank the Columbia Basin Bulletin for providing a forum in which constructive debate over salmon recovery can take place.

Mr. McKern wrongly accuses American Rivers of representing to the public that the four lower Snake River dams were the sole cause of the decline in Snake River salmon and steehead. American Rivers has never tried to convince the public that the dams are the only cause of the drastic decline in Snake River stocks, and we do not believe it to be true. In fact, it is preposterous. This convenient mischaracterization of our position -- which has been common practice among dam supporters -- is apparently used to undermine our credibility instead of focusing on the real issues.

Our position is -- and always has been -- that removing the lower Snake River dams is necessary to recover healthy, self-sustaining salmon and steelhead populations that are necessary for ecosystem health, support treaty fishing rights, and provide meaningful non-tribal fisheries. Our statement that dam removal is necessary should not be misconstrued, as it often is by lower Snake River dam supporters, as a statement that dam removal alone will be enough. Additional measures, such as restoring critical habitat in the Columbia River estuary and getting more water back in the tributaries, will likely be required as well.

I agree with Mr. McKern that the ocean is a primary driver in salmon survival and productivity. There is little doubt that substantially larger run sizes the last few years are attributable to more favorable ocean conditions, and that poor runs recorded in the Columbia and other, non-dammed rivers in the late 1980s and early 1990s were due to poor ocean and freshwater conditions.

But so what? We have no control over ocean conditions or regional weather. There are no management tools to address these large geophysical processes. What we can and should do, according to Nate Mantua, an expert on the variability of ocean conditions and a faculty member at the University of Washington, is to restore the health, complexity and integrity of the freshwater habitat, which is within our control. This enables salmon and steelhead to express diverse life-histories that protect against adverse climate and ocean conditions. I would also add that prolonged droughts are likely to be a more frequent phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest based on climate models projecting increases in regional temperatures and shrinking snowpacks.

I also agree with Mr. McKern that retrofits made to lower Columbia and Snake River dams over the last two decades have substantially improved direct passage survival relative to the 1970s. But as noted by National Marine Fisheries Service scientists, we have reached a point where only small, incremental improvements in direct passage survival at the dams are possible, and such incremental improvements are not going to provide the substantial increases in overall survival necessary to recover Snake River stocks. Despite that fact, the Corps continues to spend tens of millions of dollars retrofitting Snake River dams at ratepayer and taxpayer expense.

Mr. McKern can't seem to extract himself (or his calculator) from the "weeds" of the transport versus in-river survival debate, which is largely a red herring. I repeat the point I made before: neither in-river migrants nor transported fish have smolt-to-adult return rates (SARs) that are above the minimum 2 percent necessary for just survival let alone the 4-6 percent necessary for recovery. The few Snake River cohorts, such as spring/summer chinook that outmigrated in 1999, that have recently experienced SARs just above 2 percent, are an aberration as indicated by the fact that 2000 outmigrants had SARs below 1 percent -- the norm in many if not most years. This appears to be due in part to the loss of fitness due to adverse river conditions. Congelton et al. have found that in-river migrants are in negative energy balance throughout their downstream migration.

In comparing chinook runs at Ice Harbor in 1961 to those in the "banner" year of 2001, it is ironic that Mr. McKern fails to mention the enormous reduction in harvest that occurred during that time period. He is also remiss not to point out that approximately 80 percent of the 2001 run was of hatchery origin, which may, as noted recently by the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, prove to be detrimental to the recovery of wild stocks.

Nonetheless, wild Snake River spring/summer chinook did return in much higher numbers in 2001 than they had in previous years, but their SARs were several orders of magnitude lower than similarly situated Yakima River spring/summer chinook, which have to pass only four dams. Such comparisons of Snake River and downstream stocks consistently show substantially higher SARs for downstream stocks, although the pattern of decline and increase is similar corresponding with climate and ocean conditions.

The fact that the lower Snake River dams are the predominant factor in the continued suppression of Snake River runs has been demonstrated by Dr. Hiram Li of Oregon State University, who recently compared spring chinook runs in the John Day and Grand Ronde basins, which are separated by only a ridge line in the Blue Mountains. Dr. Li found that despite the fact that the Grand Ronde has more suitable habitat, better water temperatures, and historically produced more spring chinook, the John Day has produced more spring chinook since the lower Snake River dams were constructed. John Day fish must pass only three lower Columbia River dams.

Finally, the primary limiting factor for Snake River fall chinook is the loss of mainstem spawning habitat -- not higher ocean harvest rates as Mr. McKern contends. In a June 2000 report titled: Assessment of the Impacts of Development and Operation of the Columbia River Hydroelectric System on Mainstem Riverine Processes and Salmon Habitats, a team of scientists brought together by Battelle's Pacific Northwest Division and the United States Geological Survey found that over 97 percent of the existing suitable fall chinook habitat in the Snake basin is upstream of Idaho Power's Hells Canyon dam, which presently blocks upstream passage. They also identified the lower Snake River reach above Little Goose Dam as an area of high potential for restoring riverine conditions conducive to fall chinook spawning. Removing the four lower Snake River dams was selected as the top option for restoring Snake River fall chinook.

The central problem in Snake River salmon and steelhead management today is the lack of a plan that will actually achieve the goal agreed to by the region's four governors in 2000: healthy, harvestable, self-sustaining wild salmon and steelhead populations. Attaining this goal is also necessary to meet the federal government's treaty obligations to American Indian tribes.

Continuing to tweak the dams and improve the transportation system is simply not enough, and there is little evidence that the types of major habitat improvements (e.g., substantially improving tributary and mainstem flows) are going to be made on a scale that would certainly be needed if Snake River stocks have any chance to recover with the dams in place. In fact, as evidenced by the State of Washington's intent to permit the withdrawal of up to 2 million more acre feet of water from the Columbia mainstem over the next 20 years, the lack of flow augmentation water being provided by the Bureau of Reclamation from Idaho, the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council's proposal to reduce mainstem flows during the migration season, the Army Corps' proposal to dredge the lower Columbia and estuary, and the recent decision by the Administration to not implement the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Rob Masonis, NW regional director American Rivers
Snake River Dams
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 4, 2003

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