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Salmon Spin

by Christian Martin
Eugene Weekly, June 7, 2002

Agencies resist breaching dams.

When Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks were listed as an endangered species throughout the '90s, all eyes turned towards the four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington. Breaching the dams was widely accepted as the best strategy to save the imperiled wild salmon populations of the inland Northwest, and everyone from scientist to anglers to Native Americans argued for their removal.

Disregarding a broad scientific consensus and overwhelming public support for dam breaching, the Army Corps of Engineers instead decided to pursue "aggressive non-breach," and created a 10-year Salmon Plan that instead relies upon habitat restoration, fish passage improvements, changes in the way reservoirs and energy production would be managed and other measures. The plan went in to effect in December 2000, with the stipulation that there would be periodic "check-ins" to see if the measures were working or not. If it is determined that the Corp's 199 specific actions to restore salmon populations are unsuccessful, then the plan automatically triggers a renewal of the dam breaching option.

Last week, federal officials, including representatives from the Army Corp, Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency, met and took their first look at the Salmon Plan's one-year progress. They confidently reported that they were "on track" towards meeting the plan's legally binding goals.

BPA chief Steven Wright claimed that "under less than optimal conditions, a lot was accomplished in 2001. Substantial progress was made toward achieving structural improvements to benefit endangered fish. Despite the second worst water year in recorded history, adult survival through the dams was the best ever and juvenile survival, with the exception of some steelhead stocks, was within the range recommended by scientists as necessary to avoid extinction."

These claims were immediately countered with loud, unanimous disagreement from salmon and watershed restoration groups. "If federal agencies believe they are on track, they are either suffering from delusion or else they hired Arthur Anderson to do the analysis," countered Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director of the Sierra Club.

"If this train is 'on track,' then I want off," echoed Nicole Cordan of the coalition group Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS). The group performed its own detailed analysis of the Salmon Plan by researching each of the 199 measures‚ successes and failures, reviewing agency reports and interviewing agency officials. They found that less than 25 percent of the actions the federal government deemed necessary to save wild salmon were actually completed. Many of the actions had not been implemented yet, and many others were ignored in favor of maximum hydropower production during last summer's "energy crisis." SOS's investigation discovered that 2001 actually saw the poorest survival rate for juvenile spring/summer chinook salmon and steelhead since they were granted protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

SOS, a nationwide coalition of conservation organizations, sport and commercial fishing associations, businesses, river groups, and taxpayer advocates, released its own report card for the Salmon Plan's performance, assigning grades based on the standards and timelines in the plan. The group's findings were contrary to the fed's claims. "Water quality," "dam operations," "habitat restoration," "hatcheries & harvest," "studies & reporting" and "funding" were each evaluated and given failing grades, while "tributary & estuary habitat improvements" earned the the highest grade of "D."

In addition, federal agencies, before public release of the report card, have admitted to researchers that their recovery efforts were "not on target" and that they were actually "behind" in their obligations to the ESA.

Bureaucrats dispute the SOS report card. "This is not a par three hole," said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey, "It's a par five." Mosey instead gives the feds an "A" on implementing the plan. "Some of these folks expect a hole in one," he said.

Trout Unlimited's Western Conservation Director Jeff Curtis accuses the government of trying to "spin their way to salmon recovery." "How you can complete less than a quarter of the measures you say are necessary to recover listed salmon and steelhead in the Colombia Basin and then say you're on track‚ is a mystery to me," Curtis said.

Most crippling to the plan's viability has been the lack of federal funding. The Bush administration has not requested, nor has Congress appropriated, enough money to fully implement the plan. When the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimated that $857.9 million was required for the plan's second year, Bush countered with an offer of less than half that amount. Congress, at the behest of the Pacific Northwest delegation, eventually provided $440 million for fiscal year 2002.

Bush has proposed to raise the plan's funding levels to $506 million in FY 2003, but this figure still amounts to little over half of the NMFS's FY 2003 estimate of $918 million.

SOS points out that the plan's total price tag of $5.3 billion would pay for removing the Snake River dams five times over, "with change back." Gov. Kitzhaber recently reiterated the fiscal benefits of dam-breaching, saying "it is not the only option, but it is a responsible one that should not be disregarded out of hand."

Related Sites:
The full Salmon Plan Report Card can be viewed at
2001 Progress Report

Christian Martin is a freelance writer living in Bellingham, Washington.
Salmon Spin
Eugene Weekly, June 7, 2002

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