the film
Commentaries and editorials

What's Next: Sounds of Klamath

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, November 2006

'Environmentalist zealotry, concealed motives, arrogant judges, narrow ethics codified into law, bad science - the sounds of Klamath - this time coming to you from Idaho's Snake River Basin'

By now many of you have heard Portland federal Judge James Redden's threat to Idaho farmers. They get the water left over after he decides how much salmon require - period. Irrigation needs and prior allocation agreements don't count.

In the Judge's words: "Federal Defendants' position appears to be inconsistent with the Supreme Court's admonition that the [Endangered Species Act] ESA reflects Congress' explicit decision to require agencies to [give] . . . endangered species priority over the 'primary missions' of federal agencies." . . . "Given the precarious condition of the Snake River salmon and steelhead runs the consequences of another failed biological opinion will be serious indeed."

Similar rhetoric proceeded economic disaster in the Klamath River Basin of Southwest Oregon and Northwest California during the spring of 2001. The immediate trigger was a determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries that water requirements of ESA-listed fish left no water for irrigation. Told of this decision the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) shut off water to 210,000 irrigated acres and 1400 farmers, just as they began spring planting.

Before the crisis was over, farmers and federal law enforcement officers neared violent conflict. Further study revealed the 2001 crisis was only one phase in a long (and ongoing) environmentalist campaign to reverse the century-old decision to develop the Klamath Basin through irrigated agriculture.

The aftermath of the 2001 clash made "Klamath" a slogan for all that is wrong with ESA - the law's narrow cost-ignoring ethical perspective, its manipulation to achieve non-species environmentalist goals, and biased scientific work supporting many of its applications. The immediate Klamath crisis ended, more or less, when the National Academy of Sciences condemned the scientific underpinnings of the water shut-off decision. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton responded by restoring full irrigation flows.

Environmentalist zealotry, concealed motives, arrogant judges, narrow ethics codified into law, bad science - the sounds of Klamath - this time coming to you from Idaho's Snake River Basin.

What's next?

I had the privilege of interviewing several insiders to the emerging Idaho water controversy. If things go as I suspect, we will be spending several columns on the subject. Let's devote the rest of this column to the scientific facts, as seen from the (now familiar) variety of angles.

Science and 'science'

The valid science of Snake River water flow and salmon survival is simple, or at least feasibly understood by laymen. Increasing the speed of water passing through a reservoir helps juvenile salmon in many ways, for example by reducing time spent in hostile (high temperature, high predator) environments.

Rivers and reservoirs function somewhat like hoses. You can increase water speed by running more water through the same diameter passage or reduce the diameter and pass the same amount of water. If this isn't obvious, test next time you water the lawn. First increase water volume, then restore the original volume and squeeze the hose. Either method produces a high-speed squirt.

Judge Redden evidently understands this. I am sure he is also well briefed by environmentalists on what they want him to think, what volume / diameter / speed / salmon survival relationship means for salmon conservation and ESA compliance.

The "scientific" story he is surely being told reminds me of those cowboy towns built by movie studios. In the darkened theater we watch in suspense as Bad Bart emerges from the saloon to challenge Lone Ranger at the livery stable. On the Hollywood tour we see painted plywood frames, supported in back by timbers and surrounded by parking lots full of electronics cables and vehicles.

An equally bogus drama is being played for us (and the judge) about the "hard choices" we face on the Snake River - flush Idaho irrigation water down river to increase volume or breach dams to reduce diameter.

Bunk, bunk and more bunk. Let's see why. We have discussed these topics before so I will summarize and reference prior columns for details. To reduce clutter I linked all online references to one Web site cited below.

Scientific scam 1: There are biologically unique salmon populations in the Snake River

As this and other Snake River controversies unfold we should focus on the following overriding fact: there is no scientifically valid basis for applying ESA to Snake River salmon. Judge Redden, NOAA Fisheries, Earthjustice and all the rest have no business intruding on the management of Idaho's Snake River water and salmon, at least no business legitimately derivable from ESA.

ESA does not apply to all fish, wildlife and habitat; only to resources shown to be biologically unique, in ways that are important to the survival of scientifically recognized species. It is dubious to suggest that even Columbia River-wide populations of relevant scientifically recognized salmon species (chinook, sockeye, steelhead) are unique in ways that effect the survival of those species. It is ridiculous to assign that status to parts of Columbia River salmon populations, for example salmon spawning in the Snake River. (See Wheat Life March and April 2006 for analysis supporting this assertion.)

To focus attention on this crucial point, I will not dignify (by acceptance) the NOAA Fisheries salmon classification system. What the agency did was "legal," meaning compliant with its own rules and those of ESA. That does not mean we outsiders must respect their work. Instead, I shall refer to NOAA Fisheries salmon categories as "bunches-of-salmon."

Scientific scam 2: Snake River salmon are risk

There is merit to keeping those "bunches-of-salmon" in the Snake River, irrespective of whether they have scientifically legitimate relevance to ESA. They support a modestly valuable sport, commercial and tribal fishery. The tribal component is protected by other law. I am dismissive of the idea we "owe" salmon something. "Owing" is a concept without meaning beyond dealings among humans. However, I share the aesthetic motivation for that view. Snake River salmon were here when we came. Other things reasonably equal, they should stay.

And they will stay, thanks to continued application of longstanding conservation and management practices. Those practices are modest in cost and non-disruptive of other economic activities, including dams. (See Wheat Life May 2006 for criticism of NOAA Fisheries claims to the contrary.)

Scientific scam 3: Salmon must migrate through reservoirs

The simple, obvious solution to dam and reservoir mortality is barging juvenile salmon around both. The Corps of Engineers has been doing that since 1968. Juveniles are collected above Lower Granite (the uppermost Snake River dam) and transported by barge (sometimes truck) to points below Bonneville Dam on the Columbia. From there they continue their migration and marine life cycle, returning to spawn in their natal streams.

Survival in barges is easily determined and has always been in the high-90 percent range. (See Wheat Life June and October 2006 for discussion of recent tagging studies that demonstrate barged fish also survive well in the ocean and return to spawn in substantial numbers, in some cases sufficient numbers to sustain runs without other intervention.) In all cases, barging makes significant contributions to broader recovery and maintenance programs, such as those employing new natural genetics preserving supplementation hatcheries.

Nothing drives dam busting environmentalists to rage quicker than complimentary reference to barging. They know success and acceptance of barging kills their argument for Snake River dam removal and other draconian anti-hydro measures.

We are now over a quarter century into the dam busting game. At this late date, it is unlikely the scientifically adorned misrepresentations contained in early '90s NOAA Fisheries ESA implementation documents will be substantially revised, either in the legal record or public mind.

Such is the price of neglect. I refer to decades of inaction by those who should have been defending the interests of natural-resource producers and rural communities, as well as other beneficiaries of Columbia and Snake River dams. If that bends noses, so be it.

Fortunately, change is in the air. Pro-dam people can now get information related to their interests on the Web site of ( River Partners. Northwest River Partners is a new group formed to fight draconian, anti-hydro measures. Its John Wayne and the cavalry, coming over the hill just as the settlers fire their last bullets and prepare to be scalped. Not many of them, but they sure look good.

Keep your eyes and ears open for news of this group. If the occasion arises don't forget to open your checkbook as well. Circumstances permitting, I will devote next issue to an interview with the group's executive director, Terry Flores.

Stay tuned.

References at

Related Pages:
Removing LSR Dams a Colossal Breach of Logic by Terry Flores, The Register-Guard, 12/11/6

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
What's Next: Sounds of Klamath
Wheat Life, November 2006

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