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A Tough Year Ahead for Salmon

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, March 3, 2001

Drought means more fish barging, more fighting over how water is used

Army Corps of Engineers loads chinook and steelhead onto a barge at Lower Granite Dam in 1996. This year's drought means more fish than ever will be barged or trucked around dams.

Environmentalists and Indian leaders who believe barging is a failed experiment say the proposal will imperil endangered runs of Snake River salmon and steelhead. They want the federal government to demand more water from Idaho irrigators and power producers, so at least some fish can be left in the river.

"We're counting on a significant amount of water coming out of Brownlee (Reservoir in Idaho) in the spring to help those migrating salmon," said Bob Heinith, fisheries biologist at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Failing to commit that water could violate the Endangered Species Act, warned Heinith, whose organization represents tribes with treaty rights to fish on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has not responded to the demands, which are certain to draw sharp opposition from Idaho. The state in the past has fought attempts to draw more of its water for salmon.

Although a formal salmon plan isn't required until April, the service says it has little choice but to barge as many fish as possible. The Snake River this year will get so low and so warm that it will be deadly to juvenile fish, the agency predicts.

"Every fish we can get our hands on, we'll haul downstream," said Jim Athearn, fish program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates three Washington dams where Snake River fish can be collected.

In addition, the National Marine Fisheries Service may call for collecting Columbia River salmon and steelhead at McNary Dam and hauling them downstream, said service spokesman Brian Gorman. That's normally done only after the river heats up in summer; this year, the barging is likely to start in spring and involve far more fish.

Even agencies resigned to barging say the situation doesn't bode well for this year's crop of salmon and steelhead.

"They're subjected to poor water conditions before they're transported and then when they're delivered below Bonneville (Dam, on the lower Columbia), estuary conditions aren't very good either," said Jim Nielsen of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Barging started on a limited basis in 1968, as the region's answer to complaints that dams killed salmon. The program was greatly expanded in 1977, the worst year on record for mountain snow.

Since then, the corps has collected and transported at least half of all Snake River salmon and steelhead each year, on the presumption that those fish fare better than the ones left in the river.

Fish in the river must make their way over the top of dams or through dam turbines. Historically, they rode the current to the ocean. Now, they must swim the lengths of reservoirs that are overly warm and filled with predators.

But studies in recent years to determine the effectiveness of the $3 million annual barging program have been inconclusive. Some fish appear to do better under certain conditions when left in the river; others seem to do better when barged, said John Williams, a National Marine Fisheries biologist.

No wild fish from the Snake River -- neither those that are barged nor those that swim -- are doing well enough to perpetuate their runs, noted Nielsen.

The studies comparing barged fish with those left in the river were conducted in years when the corps released water from behind Dworshak Dam in Idaho to help cool the Snake and whisk the fish over the dams. The Dworshak reservoir has already been drained this year to provide water for generating electricity and to keep chum salmon eggs wet in the lower Columbia River.

"In a low-flow year like this, I don't think there's even any question about the benefit of transporting the fish," said Doug Arndt, chief of fish management for the corps, which over the years has consistently defended the barging program as a fish-saver.

The survival rate of fish left in the river in 1977 was less than 10 percent, said Nielsen. Survival rates weren't available for barged fish.

Rob Masonis of American Rivers said the federal agencies lack the water they need for fish because they've been unwilling to upset southern Idaho irrigators by demanding that they leave more water in the Snake.

The NMFS in 1995 called for farmers to give up 1.4 million acre feet of water to help salmon. That proposal met with such stiff opposition from farmers, business leaders and politicians that the agency settled on trying to purchase 427,000 acre feet each year from willing sellers. Influential Idahoans like Gov. Dirk Kempthorne insist that irrigators should give up nothing.

Masonis wants the fisheries service to be more aggressive in demanding water, particularly in crisis years like this.

In addition, American Rivers and other groups wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to amend Idaho Power's license to operate Brownlee Dam, to assure that the additional water reaches the lower Snake at the time it's most needed by salmon -- not necessarily when the power it produces is most valuable.

The fisheries service could request the license amendment, but has not done so.

Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited said the situation for salmon is especially critical this year because the crop of young salmon heading out to the ocean is expected to be poor. They are the progeny of salmon that spawned in 1999, most of which were the progeny of salmon that spawned in 1994, a year when the river -- and survival -- was low.

Biologists had hoped for high water this spring so the fish would have higher-than-average survival. Instead, more fish will likely die than normal, setting the stage for "horrible" returns of adult salmon in 2003 and 2004, Curtis said.

By contrast, biologists expect strong runs of adult fish returning this year to spawn in the Columbia and Snake and their tributaries. They benefited from lots of water as juveniles and improved conditions in the ocean.

Biologists can't predict exactly how those fish will fare when they leave the cold ocean for the hot, low water of the rivers.

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
A Tough Year Ahead for Salmon
Spokesman Review, March 3, 2001

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