The giant spring runoff that was supposed to safely whisk baby Snake River salmon over dams to the Pacific Ocean has been cut down to size. Mother Nature accomplished part of the feat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did the rest.
series of wet winter storms had buoyed the hopes of salmon
advocates working for the survival of this year's "class of "95"
(HCN, 5/29/95). But while millions of young salmon began their
journey to the sea, cool spring weather kept much of the snowpack
from melting. Flows on the Snake River, while significantly better
than last year, were not high enough that river managers would
consistently spill water - and endangered salmon - over the
blockade of federal dams.
When water isn't
spilled over dams, fish are pulled into the dams' power turbines
where their chances of survival are greatly diminished, according
to fisheries biologists.
To make matters worse,
salmon advocates say the Army Corps, which operates the dams, cut
back spill levels at three Lower Snake River dams several times in
May, ostensibly to protect fish. The agency said it had to reduce
dissolved nitrogen levels in the water below the dams to meet state
water quality standards. Too much of the gas in water is deadly to
But fisheries biologists say the Corps
killed many more fish sending them through the dams' whirling
turbines than they saved trying to reduce the gas caused by
Monitoring of fish below the
dams has shown that nitrogen gas has affected less than 1 percent
of the fish sampled by scientists this year. "Dissolved gas is not
a problem biologically," says Michelle DeHart, manager of the Fish
Passage Center. The center collects biological information for the
federal agencies overseeing the hydropower system.
DeHart says the real problem is political, since
the Corps is under pressure to maximize power production for the
Bonneville Power Administration and its customers, and has no
interest in changing its policy of barging salmon around the dams.
Spilled water, she adds, does not produce electricity, and spilled
fish don't ride on barges.
Charles Ray, an
advocate for salmon with Idaho Rivers United, says the Corps
reduced spills against the wishes of another federal agency, the
National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for
recovering the endangered salmon. In a letter to Fisheries Service
regional director William Stelle, Ray and representatives of two
fishing groups wrote: "Are you and NMFS in charge, or is the Army
Corps of Engineers the real decision maker for Snake River salmon?"
"It's obvious that the Corps is acting as a free
agent," Ray says. "They do whatever they want to do, whenever they
want to do it."