the film
Commentaries and editorials

Salmon vs. Dams

by Anne Minard
Idaho State Journal, January 3, 2001

Activists: Plan without breaching ‘falls short’

POCATELLO — For Idaho dam-breaching advocates, a recent federal plan to try just about everything to save salmon except bypassing four Lower Snake River dams is a call for increased action.

Richard Lloyd, Army Corps of Engineers ranger, discusses how the fish ladder in the background recreates the natural conditions for salmon returning upstream in the Snake River. After conducting an environmental impact statement last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, identified dam breaching as its top preference of ways to benefit salmon. They suggest that four dams on the Lower Snake River — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams — should be bypassed to help salmon migrate the river.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service announced at the end of December a plan to restore salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin by focusing on habitat, hatcheries and harvest. The last of four “H’s” outlined in a precursor study, hydropower, will not be part of the solution — for now.

“It definitely falls short because of that, and we think it’s patently unfair to expect timber workers, ranchers, miners, fisherman and recreationists to carry a burden that was created by these four dams,” said Scott Bosse, conservation scientist with Idaho Rivers United in Boise.

But Bosse said the federal plan is only a starting point for responses that are sure to follow.

“It’s a temporary win that we don’t expect will last all that long.”

Ice Harbor Dam is the oldest of the four lower Snake River Dams. The recovery plan spells out evaluation points at three, five and eight years.

At the earliest one, managers will evaluate whether adequate resources and funding have been applied toward recovery goals. If not, Bosse said, “it throws dam removal right back to the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

The second two checkpoints are designed to evaluate whether the plan is actually working to restore historic salmon runs.

“The dams are safe for another three years, but that’s about it,” Bosse said. “Hopefully with good ocean conditions and adequate river flows, the salmon can hold on for five more years or so until Congress acts to get rid of the dams.

“Its very likely that lawsuits will be filed within a couple of months by Indians and environmental groups who will charge that this recovery plan is a violation of the Endangered Species Act and tribal treaties,” he added.

The dams were constructed primarily for navigation and hydropower generation, and provide almost no flood control for surrounding areas. All four dams provide “fish ladders” to allow upstream migration of adult salmon. All are also equipped, to varying degrees, to allow juvenile salmon to pass.

Norm Semanko, executive director and general counsel for the Idaho Water Users Association, said water users remain adamantly opposed to dam removal.

“But for dams, there would not be any water users in Idaho. We have to have reservoirs to store water, especially in summer months,” he said. “If you start taking out dams, our dams could very well be next. What happens if taking out those fours dams doesn’t work? Is the answer then to take out our dams? Our membership has generally been opposed to taking out the dams, but our primary objection is to flow augmentation.”

Semanko said his organization is opposed to shunting water downstream to help flush salmon smolts primarily because “there isn’t enough water in the entire state of Idaho to flush salmon smolt to the ocean.” He said instead, water users advocate cutting back fish harvest, “getting a better handle on predators, including fish, birds and sea lions, and learning more about ocean conditions.

“While we may not be able to control the ocean, we can certainly get a better understanding. But sending our water downstream is not the answer.”

Semanko said he foresees threats to irrigators if the federal Bureau of Reclamation tries to supersede state laws which govern water rights.

Ron Carlson, watermaster for the Snake River under the state Department of Water Resources, agreed that augmenting flows from East Idaho is not an answer for salmon.

“If you look today at the flushes that have been done, my opinion is that they’re an embarrassment. The test of augmentation is if the amount of water that reaches Lower Granite is more than measurement error, 5 percent.

“If the flow is greater than 30,000 cubic feet per second, that’s 5 percent.” However, salmon flows are typically about 1,500 feet per second, and therefore are barely perceptible by the time they reach the Columbia, he said.

“The best data we have indicates it may be negative, from the standpoint of temperature. I don’t think there’s anything southeastern Idaho can do,” he said, adding with a laugh: “Though we appreciate the federal money, I’m not sure it’s the best use of taxpayer resources.”

Charlie Sperry, stewardship director for the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council, said his organization doesn’t have a lot to do with issues outside east Idaho.

“Where it comes into play for us up here on the Henry’s Fork is when they talk about supplementing flow in the main Snake. Any time you take water from our watershed it impacts species in the Henry’s Fork. What we ask is when any figure be considered for supplemental flows, the people making those decisions consider the potential impacts to fisheries here in the Henry’s Fork.” The Bureau of Reclamation usually releases about 450,000 cubic feet from the Henry’s Fork to help salmon runs. He said his group opposed a proposal last year to shunt much more, up to one million acre-feet.

“The water district has demonstrated that pretty clearly, that would have a very devastating impact on our agriculture, let alone the environmental concerns I’ve already mentioned,” he said.

Anne Minard
Salmon vs. Dams
Idaho State Journal, January 3, 2001

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