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Idaho's Salmon vs. Washington's Dams

by Tom Stuart
Opinion, Idaho Falls Post Register, October 30, 2003

Congressman Butch Otter's support for the dams on the lower Snake River suggests he cares more about the interests of eastern Washington than the salmon-dependent communities in Idaho. In the past three years, some Northwest salmon species have rebounded. Columbia River fall Chinook (not endangered) are thriving in a free-flowing stretch of the Columbia. The situation is improved for Idaho's spring and summer Chinook, too, although wild returns are still only one-fifth of those seen in the 1960s.

The situation for some species is still grim. Only three sockeye salmon returned to Idaho's Redfish Lake this year.

Yet Congressman Butch Otter and a chorus of anti-salmon extremists tell us nothing else should be done for Idaho's wild salmon. They level charges of extremism at those who seek to recover Idaho's most economically important fish. They appear content to watch Idaho's salmon and steelhead gradually disappear.

But by writing off salmon, Otter and others are writing off a sport fishing industry that brings $3 billion annually to the Northwest. They are writing off economic recovery for Idaho towns such as Riggins, Salmon, Challis, Stanley and Orofino, where recovered salmon runs would provide much-needed economic benefits.

Idaho, which produces more than 50 percent of all spring/summer Chinook in the entire Columbia Basin, gets only a tiny portion of its fish back. Except for a few limited, target fisheries near hatcheries, salmon fishing in Idaho, once occurring along thousands of miles of rivers, has been prohibited since 1978.

The problem for Idaho's salmon is that too many perish en route to the sea. Baby Idaho salmon, depending on flows to get to the Pacific, face two bad options - either a slow, dangerous trip through warm, slackwater reservoirs behind four low-value dams in Washington state, or an unhealthy ride in a barge or truck, where disease can spread like chicken pox in an elementary school.

A few weeks ago, a "Salmon Celebration" in Stanley commemorated the return of wild spring/summer Chinook to the Sawtooths. In the past couple of years, these returns just barely reached the 2 percent level required to stop further population declines. Meanwhile, Chinook from Oregon and Washington rivers returned at 8 percent to 10 percent rates. Is Otter insisting that Idaho accept only the crumbs of salmon recovery?

Although four low-value dams in Washington remain, federal salmon plans require that flows in the Snake River be improved. Despite their location outside Idaho, Otter and others lobbied hard to protect those dams. The feds went along on the condition that additional Idaho water be provided to improve flows. Now, these anti-salmon extremists want it both ways, supporting neither dam removal nor flow improvements.

Real jobs in places such as Kooskia, Salmon and Challis hang in the balance. Yet with no apparent concern for salmon-related jobs, Otter and others seem to say, "To hell with Idahoans who depend on salmon. To hell with Idaho getting a fair share of the regional salmon economy. We don't care about that."

Until the four low-value dams in Washington are removed, Idaho's salmon need stronger flows to get safely to the ocean. Goals for better water management in the Snake should include creation of a voluntary market allowing farmers to lease more water to help salmon. That market should let individual farmers enter into multiyear contracts, and pay them enough to make it profitable, as an important tool in the farmer's financial toolbox.

Such a system would help Idaho farmers - and farming towns. Unlike Otter's doomsday rhetoric, it would help salmon, too.

Who's the real extremist in the salmon debate? Congressman Otter - by ignoring the financial needs of family farmers, fishing jobs in Riggins, Salmon and Challis, and doing nothing to stop the loss of one of Idaho's great resources - earns the title this time.

by Tom Stuart lives in Boise, owns a Stanley business and serves on the board of directors of Idaho Rivers United. Idaho's Salmon vs. Washington's Dams
Post Register, October 30, 2003

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