Huge snowmelt may lift salmon past killer dams

  Just when everything looked dim for endangered salmon in 1995, the snow gods came through.


They hurled tons of snow at the central mountains of Idaho, which, combined with heavy spring rain, should mean big runoff in the creeks and rivers in the weeks ahead. By the beginning of May, the floodwaters were already beginning to rage in central Idaho, pushing the dwindling runs of migratory salmon down the Snake River at high speed.


But wouldn't you know it, the feds want control.


The National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are trying to shape the thundering runoff to keep flows below the threshold for spilling over dams so they can produce maximum hydropower. That means salmon may still be barged to the ocean.


Despite the agencies' efforts to control nature, the weather has forced their hand. One million salmon smolts washed into lower Granite Dam in a single day, May 3. Since all available barges were full of fish, the Corps had no choice but to spill smolts over the dam.


At a time when endangered Snake River salmon have reached their breaking point, fish experts say this year's outmigration of juvenile fish - dubbed the "class of "95' - is the last, best hope to keep the three races of endangered salmon alive. Among the 9.3 million migrants will be up to 17,000 endangered Snake River sockeye, which were captive-bred in a $1.1 million, federally funded program.


"We've got a chance to take advantage of this runoff and give the fish a better chance than they've had for the last eight years," says Charles Ray, salmon and steelhead policy coordinator for Idaho Rivers United. The dams "can either maximize it or minimize it."


When dam operators spill water and salmon over the dams, fish losses run about 2 percent. The death rate climbs to 15 percent when fish not barged are forced to bypass dams through turbines.


So far, federal agencies have resisted the opportunity to help salmon during the runoff. Ray and others in the Save our Salmon Coalition say it's hard for fish advocates to be heard since none are represented on a federal team making decisions about operating the key dams.


Indian tribes and state agencies also lack representation. "The hydro people are determined to keep this stranglehold on the river that they've had for 50 years," Ray charges. "The fish don't have a seat at that table."


It's not obvious from the glowing remarks of National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Director Will Stelle. He announced in March that his agency's plans for endangered salmon "represent a historic step forward ... to make the hydropower system more fish-friendly and to improve salmon habitat across federal lands."


The agency's biological opinion on hydro operations in 1995 concluded that "no jeopardy" would occur to salmon stocks, even though dam operations will not be appreciably different from last year or the year before. Only the large river flows - and spills - will mark a distinct difference in 1995.


To date, none of the states, salmon advocates or tribes have challenged the Fisheries Service's river operations for 1995. Challenges would go to U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh, who has maintained oversight of river operations since the state of Idaho won a lawsuit last year against federal agencies for causing "jeopardy" to the salmon with status-quo river operations.


Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus was a fierce defender of salmon, but new Republican Gov. Phil Batt has vowed to protect irrigation water from being used for salmon; suddenly, talk of a drawdown of the lower Snake River reservoirs - Andrus' plan of action - has vanished from the bargaining table.


Doug Heaper, plant manager for Bornstein Seafood in Portland, said he wishes that more political leaders would express concern about the impact of lost fisheries. "The commercial fishing industry has lost millions of dollars to the hydro system," Heaper says. "The BPA owes us, and they owe us big."


Due to concerns about wild endangered salmon being caught in gillnets, the commercial and sport spring chinook fishing season in the lower Columbia was canceled yet again this year. Indian tribes, who have treaty rights to harvest fall chinook salmon in the mid-Columbia, may still have a limited fishery, officials said.


Sensing the lack of political support, the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition is waging a grassroots campaign. In early April, volunteers fanned out through the region to deliver more than 100,000 fish-shaped door-hangers to residents, urging them to send a postcard to Stelle and strategic political leaders. Each postcard carried the message: "Yes, I want wild salmon to survive in the Northwest. Extinction is not OK." In what may have been a symbolic gesture, the National Marine Fisheries Service sent 3,000 of the postcards back to the environmentalists.


But even as all forces seem to be working against the fish, the weather gods may intercede once again.


A cool spring has preserved much of the hefty snowpack in the high country. As the temperatures have warmed up, the rivers in the basin have begun to roil.


"All hell is going to break loose if it'd just warm up," says Bert Bowler, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Idaho Fish and Game Department. "When it gets hot, the Snake will be running 150,000 to 160,000 cfs at Lower Granite Dam, and they'll have to spill." And then it will be up to the fighting salmon to make it on their own.


*Steve Stuebner





Steve Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.