Dam breaching gets a surprise endorsement

  • Don Chapman

    Joe Jaszewski/The Idaho Statesman
  When a longtime consultant for the hydropower industry suddenly announced that four dams in Washington needed to be breached to save Idaho’s salmon, he shook the region.

For decades, Don Chapman, the "guru" of fisheries biologists, had staunchly defended technological fixes for the imperiled fish, recommending hauling salmon past the dams from their spawning grounds to the Pacific Ocean.

This summer, however, Chapman changed his mind about breaching the four lower Snake River dams. He cited new scientific evidence showing that the Columbia River is warming. Warmer water will reduce the habitat available for spawning, he said, and even cause the North Pacific, where the fish mature, to lose much of its productivity.

It’s a dramatic turnaround, and Chapman’s former students at the University of Idaho say it is comparable to the one in the Star Wars saga: A hero rises, but falls, as Darth Vader did; then, when he’s needed most, he turns away from the dark side to save the day.

When he was a professor, they say, Chapman instilled his students with a sense of idealism, encouraging them to be advocates for fish and their habitat. In the 1960s and ’70s, many of them went on to influential jobs managing salmon and steelhead.

"He was our knight in shining armor," says Steve Pettit, now a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist.

Then, in 1979, after a stint helping native people in Tanzania and Colombia to develop sustainable fisheries, Chapman left the university to become a fisheries consultant for the Northwest’s electric power utilities.

Some of his former students, now fisheries managers in Oregon and Idaho, were pushing hydroelectric dam operators to make eight dams between the Pacific and Idaho less deadly for imperiled salmon. Dam operators collected young salmon as they reached the dams, loading the fish into trucks and barges and then shipping them downriver to the estuary below Bonneville Dam, near Portland.

It wasn’t enough, said state and tribal biologists; the fish were still in danger of going extinct. Chapman, however, defended the system. And he was well paid for doing so.

His former students said they’d find themselves sitting in court, testifying under cross examination from a utility attorney. Whispering into the lawyer’s ear would be Chapman, providing just the right question that illuminated the weakness or uncertainty of the biologist’s point.

"It was pretty intimidating," said Frank Young, fish and wildlife coordinator for the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. "You can’t help but feel betrayed."

In 1999, the Idaho Section of the American Fisheries Society voted overwhelmingly that breaching the four dams on the lower Snake was the best — and perhaps the only — way to save the endangered salmon that spawned upstream. Chapman was among the small minority who refused to go along.

"I know what they say — ‘He’s gone over to the dark side,’ " Chapman said at the time. "I’m straight with myself, straight in my mind that I’ve acted professionally."

Fast forward to 2005; Chapman has all but retired. He continues to write, co-authoring a recent book for the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science.

Recently, he filed a statement on behalf of the public utilities, critical of Judge James Redden’s plan to spill additional water over the dams this summer to help fall chinook migrate. Barging the fish would be safer, Chapman still believes, but Redden, who overruled the Bush administration’s salmon plan, disagreed (HCN, 6/13/05: For salmon, a crucial moment of decision).

Then came the news about the warming river. Chapman decided that it changed everything. All the old arguments about the fish were overwhelmed, he said. He hopes that the new evidence will spark renewed debate among other scientists on all sides of the argument.

With his public reversal, Chapman acknowledges he’s moving out of the scientific realm and into the political arena, where there’s never been much support for breaching the dams.

"After 50 years in fisheries, I take that privilege," he said.

Chapman reminds us of something that’s often forgotten nowadays. Science isn’t about accepting the majority opinion; it’s about peer review and research. Scientists defend their hypotheses with data, not with emotion.

But scientists, like the rest of us, also have values. And in the end, our values will influence our decisions, as a society, to save the salmon — or save the dams.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, and author of the upcoming book, Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.