Grande Ronde River
by Joel Connelly, P-I Columnist
TROY, Ore. -- Elk on the bluff tops, deer along the river, a coyote scurrying up a slope, bighorn sheep cavorting on cliffs, bald eagles glaring down from trees, even a swimming rattlesnake -- the remote Grande Ronde River is the real-life Wild Kingdom to Northwest river runners.
What you don't see is explained dryly in a Bureau of Land Management guide to the river system.
"The Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers were once historical spawning grounds for large numbers of salmon and steelhead," it says. "In 1994, the Snake River Chinook salmon was listed as a threatened species. In 1997 and 1998, both steelhead and bull trout were also listed as threatened."
With no dams, and miles of unspoiled habitat, the Wallowa-Grande Ronde system should be home to -- swiping phraseology from George H.W. Bush -- "more darned salmon than you can shake a stick at."
Four dams on the lower Snake River, into which the Grande Ronde flows near Asotin, that's what.
"If you want to the over-the-edge effect of the dams, look to eastern Oregon," former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reflected recently. "The John Day River still has viable salmon runs. It flows into the Columbia.
"The Grande Ronde, a Snake River tributary, does not. The Grande Ronde enters the Snake River above the four dams."
The dams transformed Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston into barge ports and created "a working river," as House Republicans called it in a showcase hearing last week.
It works for parts of the economy, not others. Salmon runs in the Snake River -- the Columbia River's principal tributary -- have plummeted.
Together with four projects downstream on the Columbia, young Snake River salmon must pass eight dams and reservoirs en route to the Pacific. What was once a seven- to nine-day journey now takes 35 days or more.
Trucking and barging around dams clearly has not worked for salmon.
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus caught his last salmon on the Clearwater River in 1977. "In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was a substantial salmon economy in Lewiston, Clarkston and Riggins. No more," Andrus said.
The Bush administration wants to throw the booklet at the problem.
Under a plan, recently rejected by U.S. District Judge James Redden, the administration proposed a five-word goal for Columbia and Snake River salmon: "No appreciable reduction in survival."
What the hell good does that do if salmon runs are already decimated?
It sure doesn't put salmon back in the Grande Ronde, or Oregon's Imnaha River, or Idaho's wild, wonderful Salmon River.
Thousands of sockeye salmon once swam nearly 900 miles upstream through the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to spawn in namesake Redfish Lake. By 1988, just one returned. A weir below the lake became an impromptu shrine, with candles and placards saying: "Spawn until you drop."
Conservationists have a solution: Breach the dams! They argue that the lower Snake River supplies only 5 percent of kilowatts produced by the federal power system.
They cite a recent American Fisheries Society scientific analysis, which found: "Benefits to Snake River stock survival and recovery would be assured with the removal of the lower four dams in that system."
Republicans have lined up at the opposite extreme. George W. Bush became a defender of dams in the 2000 campaign. He appeared last year at Ice Harbor Dam to boast of salmon recovery. (The runs have plummeted again this year.)
Salmon have even become the stuff of Bush-speak. "The man and the fish can coexist," the future president told one 2000 rally. In a Spokane speech, he referred to the Snake River as "the river on the Snake."
Bush's thoughts are reflected in the administration plan. It goes so far as to call lower Snake dams an "immutable part of the landscape."
Water flow through reservoirs is less than one-tenth the velocity it was when the lower Snake flowed free. But the "working river" is being counted on to propel another Idaho Republican into office.
Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, is best known as the former son-in-law of billionaire potato magnate J.R. Simplot and as one-time winner of the "Mr. Tight Jeans" contest at the Rockin' Rodeo bar in Boise.
Otter is running for governor and running with the dam issue. He has railed against environmentalists and vowed that federal water projects that helped build his state won't be sacrificed "at the altar of advocacy science and biological diversity."
Andrus wonders how remaining Snake River salmon will navigate through the hot water of debate.
"You will not live long enough ever to see the dams breached," he said. "The power brokers will never permit it to happen."
On Friday, Redden seemed to concur. He delivered a Solomon-like opinion, but delivered more water to imperiled salmon.
Redden ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to increase spill over the four lower Snake River dams.
Adequate water velocity is vital to getting young salmon from pristine upstream habitat -- such as the Grande Ronde -- to the ocean.
"This injunction is necessary to avoid irreparable harm to juvenile fall Chinook and other listed species," the judge said.
But Redden went only so far. He refused to order an increase in overall flow of the Snake River -- much of which goes to upstream irrigation projects handsomely subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer.
Four decades ago, with lower Snake River projects on the drawing boards, I remember seeing propaganda put out by dam advocates.
One leaflet was decorated by a drawing that showed a smiling salmon. The fish wore a bowler hat and carried a cane.
Salmon wouldn't have to work so hard, it said, because the Army Corps of Engineers would be barging them around dams.
Interests that put out this political horse manure are today squawking over Redden's latest order.
The Grande Ronde remains a bracing, beautiful river. It has habitat. It just needs salmon.
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