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Stop Legitimizing Trading Off
Economics for Salmon

by Joe Whitworth
Opinion, The Oregonian, March 13, 2001

Juvenile salmon do not swim to the ocean. In a properly functioning system, they are flushed, tail first, by the flow of the river. Without flow, they are hostage to lethal temperatures, predation and diminishing food supply.

Consider a human equivalent. Imagine a relatively flat driveway. Hot summer day. You're in your car, windows up, A/C off. You must get to the end of your driveway to get to work, buy groceries, meet your spouse, to live your life. One to four Civic Stadium-sized "dams" block your drive. If you are in neutral, engine off and have nobody to push you, what are the odds of your making it out? The answer: about the same as a juvenile salmon.

For centuries, salmon have counted on winter rains and spring melts to flush their young to the sea. But in extracting electricity from the Columbia, dams have made the river and its flows unrecognizable to fish. To generate power for air conditioning in the summer, lights in the winter and cheap public-subsidized industrial use year round, water is backed up behind the dams until it best suits human use.

The dilemma of salmon travel in dammed Northwest rivers is not new. The Oregon Territory in 1848 set out that "the rivers and streams in which salmon are found, or to which they resort, shall not be obstructed by dams or otherwise, unless such dams or other obstructions are so constructed as to allow them to pass freely up and down such rivers and streams." Makes sense.

In 1980, even while the fish/power balancing act was getting tougher by the year, the Northwest Power Act still labeled salmon and hydropower as "coequal partners" of the federal system of dams.

And the National Marine Fisheries Service requires that the Bonneville Power Administration provide flows in the spring and summer for imperiled salmon.

In fact, providing these flows was a central and binding premise upon which the federal deal that retained the Snake River Dams was struck last year.

Times change, sure. But if history in the Columbia River Basin has taught us anything, it is that BPA and other hydrosystem operators are always willing to legitimize the trade of economics for fish.

Recent BPA actions illustrate the point. The two emergencies recently declared by BPA were not desperate attempts to meet power demands. BPA just didn't want to pay as much as $50 million a week on the open power market to meet the supply obligations it locked itself into long ago. In other words, the "emergency" was not that BPA could not find enough power to meet loads, it was that the agency couldn't find it at a price it wanted to pay.

Such economics are not legally concluded to be an acceptable basis to declare an emergency that dips into water stores specifically reserved for endangered fish.

It's clear that if you are a fish or a farmer, 2001 will be a hard year, all year. And coupled with BPA's failure to plan ahead and willingness to bend the law, physically transporting every fish we can get our hands on is about the only option available. But this Band-Aid approach to fish recovery must stop.

Salmon have fed us, their receipts have clothed us, their journey has inspired us, and their existence has defined us as Northwesterners for generations. More pounds of salmon have been lost in the name of cheap hydropower than any mathematician could calculate.

The salmon debate has continued on at such a pitch over the last decade that many Oregonians may be approaching issue fatigue. But think of the buffalo:

With the then-new technologies of barbed wire, locomotives and rifles, America unwittingly wrote the history of its bison.

Time finds us again in an era of new technology and wealth. And again, a similar choice confronts our human culture: will the storied Oregon ethic prove real, or will we repeat the story of the buffalo? The days of easy decisions are over. Light bills or legacy? We pick today.

Joe Whitworth is executive director of Oregon Trout
Stop Legitimizing Trading Off Economics for Salmon
The Oregonian, March 13, 2001

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