the film
Commentaries and editorials

Utility Consultant Switches Sides

by Kevin Taylor
The Inlander, February 28, 2007

Do you care enough? That's the question Don Chapman kept confronting when undeniable evidence of global warming forced him to draw uncomfortable conclusions about his longtime stance that wild salmon could survive the four dams in the lower Snake River.

So in late summer 2005, Chapman had a coming-out. He's now a powerful advocate for taking out the dams.

Fifty years a scientist, he says he had no choice but to follow the evidence that global warming could be the death of endangered salmon runs in the Snake River if the dams - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite - remain in place.

The 75-year-old, now elfin and white-haired, was a charismatic biology professor at the University of Idaho and elsewhere. He was dean, mentor and inspiration to a generation of fisheries biologists in the Northwest.

Late in his career he ran a consulting company that took on plenty of work for power interests, ranging from public utility districts in central Washington up to the big daddy itself, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the umbrella group for utilities and power consuming industries, the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee.

"I was a consultant to these people on issues involving court cases," Chapman says. Many times that meant taking on former students. "I have great respect for all the people who opposed me. They thought they were right. I thought I was right."

And he thought that way - dams and salmon can co-exist thanks to barging of smolts - until participating in a recent National Academy of Sciences study. It showed water in the Columbia and Snake river systems has risen 1.5 degrees Celsius in 50 years.

The effects of higher water temperatures on salmon and steelhead are significant: Cued by warmer water, the fish migrate earlier. Water temperatures higher than 68 degrees (Fahrenheit) disorient salmon. Predators are more active in warmer waters.

"What it means to me is the downstream boundary of rearing sites for chinook will move upstream [to cooler waters]. It means habitat will shrink," Chapman says.

In layman's terms: "Salmon and steelhead are in deep doo-doo," Chapman says. "The fish that migrate down the Columbia in summer will have to change their habits or perish."

It is clear to him now, he says, that the lower Snake River dams must come out to create cooler water.

"If we want to save wild fish, we need habitat protection that includes breaching," he says. "That's the pitch I'm making ,and I think I'm on the right track.

"The mainstem Columbia dams - John Day, McNary - they produce a hell of a lot of power. The lower Snake dams don't produce much. They don't store water," Chapman says. "It's not politically expedient or wise to say too much when you work for an agency like Bonneville. But if you got enough beer, you'd get guys who work in public utilities say the Snake dams are not necessary."

There is one thing that catches at his conviction, however.

"The problem I've got right now is that at the same time we need to get the dams out and breach, we need renewables [energy sources] to get off the fossil fuel kick.

"So I've got a contradiction in objectives here," Chapman says. "There is nothing I would rather have than proof I am wrong."

Kevin Taylor
Utility Consultant Switches Sides
The Inlander, February 28, 2007

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