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Will We Save Our Salmon?

by Ted Kerasote
Sports Afield Magazine, March 2001

Everyone agrees that endangered salmon should be restored. The question is how.

Prior to construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957, Indian tribes netted all they wantedof the plentiful salmon at Celilo Falls Few places in the Pacific Northwest highlight the controversy over saving the region's endangered salmon better than the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River and the Lower Snake between Pasco, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho.

The last undammed section of the mainstem Columbia in the United States, the 55-mile-long Hanford Reach, brims with fall Chinook from October through March. Islands, backwaters, channels, and sloughs hopscotch up and down the river, and the spawning fish scour out their redds on broad gravel bars. In the spring, insects abound in the riparian vegetation and along the cobbled beaches. Most importantly, the dams upstream of the Hanford Reach are regulated so that the flow of water is adequate during the crucial periods of spawning, the incubation and hatching of eggs, and the migration of juvenile fish.

The results speak for themselves. The Hanford stock of fall Chinook flourishes and has persisted at relatively high densities despite great variations in freshwater and oceanic conditions and the arduous passage the fish have to make through four downstream Columbia dams on their way to and from the sea.

By contrast, the Snake River stock of fall Chinook, which must also pass the same four Columbia River dams, has been listed as threatened and continues to decline. What's the difference? Many fisheries biologists think it's the additional four dams on the lower Snake River-Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite-all of which were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1961 and 1975.

As I drive along this 140-mile stretch of water, I'm hard-pressed to find anything resembling the original riverine ecosystem in which these fish evolved. The four dams create one long lake, with no gravel bars for spawning fish and no fast-moving channels. Miles of riprap line the shores, reducing the insect populations that are so important for the growth of juvenile salmon, and the warm, slow-moving water makes for marginal living conditions.

Comparisons of ecosystems such as these-a thriving fishery and a declining one, with four dams seemingly the deciding factor-have led conservationists across the nation to make the removal of the four lower Snake River dams the cornerstone of a comprehensive salmon recovery program in the Pacific Northwest. As Ed Bowles, the salmon and steelhead recovery manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, says, "Prior to the completion of the lower Snake River dams, the Snake River stocks did as well or better than their downriver counterparts. Since completion of the dams, we have every year done much worse."

Steady Declines
"Much worse" hardly describes the alarming condition of wild salmon populations in the Snake River as well as in the rest of the region. When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, perhaps 8 to 16 million salmon entered the mouth of the Columbia annually. Since the late 1800s, the number of salmon returning to the river has steadily declined until now only about 2 million salmon, most of them hatchery-reared fish, make their way upstream. Historically, the Snake River produced 40 percent, or 3 to 6 million, of the Columbia Basin's fish. During the last 10 years, an average of only 99,000 fish-10,000 of them wild-have returned to the Snake.

A string of private organizations, such as Trout Unlimited, Save Our Wild Salmon, American Rivers, and the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, have also poured time and millions of dollars into forestalling the decline of the fish. Indeed, no other endangered species has ever generated such fervor and commitment. Unlike the spotted owl, salmon are the economic and cultural icon of the Pacific Northwest; the stakes are very high. As George Frampton said of the National Marine Fisheries Service's current salmon recovery plan in his presentation to Congress, "The best science available indicates that Snake River and Columbia River stocks could become extinct within our lifetimes."

Development of the Region
No one disputes that erecting the Pacific Northwest's hydroelectric system from the 1930s to the 1970s has played a major role in the potential extinction of salmon. Two hundred and eleven dams have altered the wild rivers of the Columbia Basin, and brought Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming the nation's cheapest electrical rates. The region has also enjoyed inexpensive barge transport and plentiful water for irrigation. But the cost to riparian wildlife and anadromous fish has been severe.

Out of the original 1,200 miles available to salmon and steelhead on the mainstem Columbia, only 55 miles of habitat-at Hanford Reach-remain intact. In the Snake River mainstem, dams block or have flooded all but about 100 miles of the 500 miles formerly accessible to anadromous fish.

Some dams, like Grand Coulee and Hell's Canyon, have completely blocked the passage of salmon. Other dams, like Lower Granite, which I am visiting today, feature fish ladders for returning adult salmon. However, the dams have flooded spawning habitat and continue to kill seabound juvenile fish-called smolts-in turbines, by spilling them into water saturated with dissolved atmospheric gasses, and by transforming what were rivers into a string of reservoirs.

During the great dam-building era of the last century, logging, agriculture, and urbanization also transformed the habitats of tributaries and estuaries, by silting rivers, paving shorelines, and adding pollutants to waterways. Across the north Pacific Ocean, the commercial harvest rose dramatically.

Yet against this backdrop of declining wild salmon populations, the ice-filled display cases of fish markets and grocery stores have continued to brim with salmon steaks and fillets. Why then do we have a problem?

Cause for Concern
Many of the salmon we now eat are grown on fish farms. They never go to sea; they're like so many feedlot cattle. Hatchery-reared salmon do spend time in the ocean and return upriver, but anglers still value them less than wild salmon. As one steelhead fisherman with whom I chatted as he cast by Lower Granite Dam told me, "Wild fish fight harder."

Whether this is true in all cases, wild salmon have been shown to be uniquely adapted to their home streams. Different migration times and behavior represent the "evolutionary significant units" of a given species. In "Return to the River," a landmark report to the Northwest Power Planning Council by its Independent Scientific Advisory Board, it was pointed out that "such diversity, which buffers salmonid populations against both short- and long-term scales of environmental variation, has become even more important today as human activities have increased the rate and amplitude of environmental fluctuations over those salmon experienced historically." In short, say the biologists, the genetic diversity seen in these different stocks of wild salmon give the fish the ability to deal with a wide range of changes in both the fresh- and saltwater environment.

It's no accident then that efforts to save wild salmon continue to be monumental. They were one of the key economic engines of the Pacific Northwest, underpinning the region's quality of life as well as the spiritual values for many indigenous peoples.

Every Solution but One
The efforts began in 1906 when federal law decreed that ladders for adult anadromous fish had to be built into all federally licensed dams. Grand Coulee was thought to be too high for ladders, and Hell's Canyon's elevator system failed. Both dams now block salmon runs on the upper Columbia and Snake rivers.

Fish ladders have worked on many dams. The Hanford Reach as well as the Yakima River-both above four dams and the latter with a thriving spring Chinook run-are proof positive that salmon can handle some disruption during part of their life cycle. Getting juvenile fish down through the eight dams on the Snake and Columbia has been more problematic, however, as I see firsthand while touring Lower Granite Dam with Nola Conway, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist.

She shows me diagrams of a variety of devices that have been used to reduce the mortality of smolts in turbines and in water supersaturated with atmospheric gasses-surface collectors and spill deflectors-and we actually descend into the cement bowels of the dam, where we gaze at a six-story-high fish screen. Lowered into place, it deflects smolts away from the turbines and whisks them up, through and out the dam to an intricacy of pipes, sluices, and chutes that deposits them into fish barges. They are then transported through the locks of the intervening dams and released-hardly a natural condition for a fish adapted to spending the first part of its life in a river, a situation that Conway acknowledges by saying, "Despite all this technical expertise, salmon numbers are still declining."

Data produced by scientists throughout the region reinforce her contention. Salmon are tagged in streams above Lower Granite, and at the dams themselves, with computer chips called Passive Integrated Transponders. The size of a grain of rice, they enable scientists to track both barged and unbarged fish, providing evidence that the more times fish are handled, the lower their chance of surviving to adulthood. This supports the view of many regional biologists that the impacts of the hydro system aren't immediately seen, but result in substantial delayed mortality.

"Even if the claims by the Corps that 98 percent of barged fish are alive when they're released are accurate, we don't see those fish coming back." says Dave Cannamela, a biologist working for the Idaho Fish and Game Department. "We're not getting the 2- to 6-percent smolt-to-adult return that we need to hold the population as it is or rebuild it. The fact that we see improved rates of return when we have relatively good flow conditions in the Lower Snake points to the migration corridor being the problem."

In 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Marsh found all these mitigation methods "significantly flawed" and that the management of endangered salmon by the National Marine Fisheries Service was too heavily geared toward a status quo and minor improvements of the hydroelectric system. "The situation literally cries out for a major overhaul," he wrote.

Pro Breachers
The NMFS went back to the drawing board and revamped its salmon recovery plan. In the meantime, more and more fisheries scientists, conservation organizations, and the general public began to push for breaching the lower four Snake River dams as a necessary element in any region-wide salmon recovery plan. Breaching would leave the concrete structures in place, but remove the earthen works around the dams to let the river pass.

Two hundred and six fisheries biologists, several of them on the Independent Scientific Advisory Board that produced "Return to the River," urged President Clinton to include dam breaching in any salmon-recovery plan. Liz Hamilton, the executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, a coalition of sportfishing interests, went on record as supporting breaching. "After years of declining salmon runs and the failure of fish barging and other expensive 'techno-fixes,'" she says, "it is clear that restoring more natural river conditions is the only hope for our salmon and steelhead." In addition, the Idaho and Oregon chapters, as well as the western division of the American Fisheries Society, passed resolutions that identified dam removal as a necessary component in restoring Snake River salmon.

The Plan
In July 2000, the new NMFS strategy was revealed. It emphasized an overhaul of the Columbia River Basin, including hatchery reforms, increasing flow to under-watered streams, improving bypass systems, rebuilding the productivity of the Columbia River estuary, and removing impediments to the passage of salmon in tributary streams. Harvest of wild fish, already at the vanishing point, would remain untouched. Progress on salmon recovery would be reviewed in five, eight, and 10 years, and dam removal would be left on the table as an option. In the face of overwhelming scientific support for breaching, NMFS backpedaled, concluding that "there is continuing scientific uncertainty about whether breaching dams is necessary to achieve recovery and considerable uncertainty about whether it will do the job."

Conservationists, the sportfishing industry, and native tribes with guaranteed fishing rights were dismayed, especially in light of a paper that Trout Unlimited circulated. Authored by Dr. Philip Mundy of the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, it predicted that by the time any dam could be taken out under the NMFS plan, by the year 2017, spring and summer Chinook would be functionally extinct.

Regional Disaster or Economic Windfall? The four lower Snake River dams have created an inland waterway, stretching almost to the Rocky Mountains and making Lewiston, Idaho, the farthest inland port of the Pacific Ocean. They have also created a federally subsidized culture for everything from power to water to transportation.

Quite naturally, wheat growers and the timber industry, both of whom use the Snake River as an inexpensive way to ship grain and wood products to the West Coast, were cheered by the news that the dams would not be immediately dismantled. Barge operators, who pay no fees to use the waterway, were also happy, as were 13 farming operations that pull water from the reservoirs and irrigate 37,000 acres. Large electricity users, such as the aluminum industry, weren't complaining either.

An economic analysis of dam breaching done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed that if grain had to be shipped by rail and truck, instead of water, the cost of shipping a bushel of wheat would rise by 28 percent. Electricity costs would increase roughly $1 to $5 per month for residential customers, and after an initial dam deconstruction boom, the region's economy would flatten.

"We believe very strongly," says Glenn Vanselow, the head of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, "that there will be a significant negative impact on international trade and on the generation of low-cost power that fuels the economy of the region, if the dams are breached."

However, economists working for Trout Unlimited produced a different economic scenario, which showed that the Corps had ignored the fact that taxpayer subsidies ($10 million annually to the waterway alone) provide benefits to a small group of users while causing significant harm to other facets of the economy, particularly fishing, recreation, and tourism. Cheap grain transportation, the report went on to say, could be maintained by improving the rail systems to the next downstream port: Pasco, Washington. Irrigation could go on by using groundwater. Since the dams supply only 4 to 5 percent of the region's electricity, consumers would still have the cheapest power rates in the nation. Most importantly, breaching would cost the region's residents about $300 million, but would bring $1.3 billion in benefits per year.

When I spoke with the Columbia Basin Tribes, another economic benefit became apparent. Promised fishing rights by an 1855 treaty, which was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1979, the tribes have vowed legal action if dam breaching is not part of a comprehensive salmon recovery plan. Since salmon hold significant spiritual value for the tribes, they have been unwilling to assign a dollar value to their fishing rights if the federal government were found to have abrogated them. But the taxpayer-advocacy organization, Taxpayers for Common Sense, has. It calculates that the minimum price tag to indemnify the tribes would be in the tens of billions of dollars.

The Long View
Which economic projection is correct? History provides an example for weighing both. In the 1940s the people of northwestern Wyoming became bitterly divided over whether to maintain a ranching economy in Jackson Hole or turn to tourism and recreation by expanding Grand Teton National Park, just as the people of the Pacific Northwest are today divided over the future of four dams out of the more than 200 in the region. Eventually Grand Teton National Park was expanded, and, with open space and wildlife preserved, hunting, fishing, tourism, and its associated service industries have given Jackson Hole one of the strongest rural economies in the nation. Ranching has continued as well.

Restoring the wild salmon population and the free-flowing rivers they need to flourish could do the same for the Pacific Northwest. Unlike cheap water, electricity, and subsidized water transportation, they aren't replaceable, they are currently scarce, and people long for them. Sadly, the political will in the region seems unable-or unwilling-to recognize this. Perhaps, though, the political climate is changing.

In his extraordinary endorsement of breaching the four lower Snake River dams, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber observed that his choice was "to reject the guiltless complacency that has permitted this drift toward extinction and to simply do what needs to be done." Whether fishermen, conservationists, tribal leaders, and a few politicians like Kitzhaber can do what needs to be done before these stocks of wild fish vanish from the earth remains to be seen.

Ted Kerasote
Will We Save Our Salmon?
Sports Afield Magazine, March, 2001

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