Salmon Salvation

Will a new political order be enough to finally bring the dams down?

  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine
  • By Paul Lachine

Scott Van Bergen settled onto a bench at the back of U.S. District Judge James Redden's Portland courtroom on a Friday morning in March and waited for the ninth -- or perhaps the 29th -- round of Pacific Northwest salmon vs. the dams to begin. His high school zoology class had just studied endangered species, and his teacher offered him the opportunity to see where a significant part of the effort to save imperiled creatures takes place -- the federal courts.

Van Bergen is a bright Oregon native who aspires to become a marine biologist. He hopes "there will be a movement to bring the river back to where it was naturally," and that healthy runs of wild salmon and steelhead will swim the Columbia and Snake rivers by the time he gets his college degree.   

Can the Pacific Northwest -- indeed the nation -- fulfill Van Bergen's dream of wild salmon recovery? For the first time in decades, the answer may be yes. Many biologists have long been clear about the best way to achieve it: Remove four dams on the Lower Snake River so the fish can reach millions of acres of pristine habitat in central Idaho and northeast Oregon.

For nearly 20 years, however, the powerful federal agencies now appearing before Redden -- including the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region's hydropower, and the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, which run some of the region's 200 major dams -- have strenuously avoided dam removal. They've spent $8 billion on almost every conceivable alternative with little consequent improvement in the fortunes of wild fish. And they've cultivated allies among inland ports, utilities, the barging industry, the vanishing aluminum industry and politicians, including Washington state's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.

Some of those formidable obstacles to dam removal remain, but there are signs that the balance is tipping. President Barack Obama appears dedicated to science and transparency; a well-respected fisheries scientist is now in charge of a key federal agency; and new Northwestern politicians have signaled their willingness to help solve the salmon crisis. Some eastern Washington farmers and other dam beneficiaries appear willing to contemplate a future without the four Snake dams, and renewables in the region already produce as much electricity as these dams provide. A ban on commercial salmon fishing along the Oregon and California coasts for the second consecutive year will cost fishing communities hundreds of millions of dollars, adding urgency to salmon restoration. Most of all, Judge Redden is determined to make government agencies finally follow the Endangered Species Act.

Throughout the Columbia Basin, there is "more interest than ever in working to recover these fish," says Michael Carrier, natural resources policy director for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Anonymous says:
May 04, 2009 04:46 PM
I hope that NOAA Administrator Lubchenco and CEQ Director Sutley read this article in its entirety. This well-researched piece makes clear what the new Obama administration needs to do to save salmon. Salmon restoration will only happen if our leaders are willing to make tough, smart choices -- such as dam removal. The best available science tells us that removing the four lower Snake dams is most reliable way to recover highly endangered salmon populations whose numbers have been plummeting since the dams were erected. It's time to stop allowing BPA and the ACOE to play politics with our natural resources and time to move toward a clean energy future that will replace the electricity generated by the 4 lower Snake dams with clean wind and solar, which will also create secure family, wage jobs in both the energy sector as well as the fishing industry, which has been going down the drain as fast as the salmon numbers since the dams came online. The very next thing the Obama administration should do is throw out the 2008 Bush salmon plan that ignores the ESA and science. And then Lubchenco should convene a solutions table that will bring together the key stakeholders -- wheat farmers, fishermen, taxpayers, clean energy groups, Tribes and conservationists -- and craft a solution that will restore our salmon and keep our communities whole. The time to act though is now. I hope the Obama administration is listening.
Anonymous says:
May 04, 2009 05:38 PM
This is an extremely well written and comprehensive piece. For anyone trying to gain a complete understanding of the issues facing Columbia/Snake River salmon read this article! Federal agencies point to increased salmon runs as evidence of salmon recovery. These statistics are based on hatchery fish, which are genetically different from wild salmon. The Endangered Species Act protects WILD salmon, and to do that most scientists believe the best first step is removing the four lower Snake River dams. These four dams only produce 1,000 megawatts of power, and a recent study by the NW Energy Coalition called Bright Future lays out a path that would allow for these dams to be breached while reducing green-house gas emissions and create new jobs in the sustainable energy sector.
Anonymous says:
May 05, 2009 08:49 AM
With all due respect to the previous writers and the author, this article misses the point badly. The obsession with the lower four dams on the Snake--and I am most assuredly NOT a fan of those dams--distracts from a much larger and more tangled problem. First off, most scientific assessments suggest that very little additional habitat will come online as a result of breaching, and that the major obstacles to spawning and migration remain upstream and downstream from those sites. Second, the long-standing habit of ignoring the tangled problems of transnational ocean management of the fisheries and of rapidly changing ocean climate loom much larger and a much less amenable to the sort of easy technological fix that is being sought by a rather narrow-mindedly obsessed group in Redden's courtroom. The problems plaguing salmon runs in the Columbia basin and elsewhere are at once much broader and less tractable than is being admitted by the author and comments. HCN is my mind gets about a C- or D+ for this essay. They have their eye on the wrong story.
Anonymous says:
May 05, 2009 01:26 PM
Actually, removing the lower Snake River dams would provide Snake River fall chinook, which spawn in the mainstem river and lower down the tributaries, tripling their existing habitat. That's not at all insignificant, especially as it would create a "refuge" of free-flowing Snake River close to the Hanford Reach, the last stretch of free-flowing river on the Columbia. Not coincidentally, the Hanford Reach has the best salmon returns of anywhere in the Columbia Basin.

In addition, removing the dams would significantly improve egress and ingress to the primo (and climate resilient) spring/summer chinook and steelhead habitat upstream of the dams in the Salmon and Grande Ronde river systems.
Anonymous says:
May 07, 2009 12:27 AM

Sorry but you are a bit off in your deduction. These 4 lower Snake Dams kill off the smolting Salmon/Steelhead. Yes many are collected at Lower Granite and then barged. Science has repeatedly shown barged fish return adults at a much lower % vs. those that run the gauntlet.

Once snowmelt subsides these four lakes bake. And bake. And bake. They have become predator sinks for feral warm water species. They have raised the summer water temps several degrees. To the point of being lethal to all salmonids. Dworshak is required to spill cold water to help elminate this thermal condition. Dworshak cold water hits lower granite lake. Slides to the base of lower granite dam. And is done. It doesn't help one bit except add flows to spill a bit more water over the dams. Spill being another band aid that creates paper fish. Helps but in no way does anything meaningful towards turning the corner from exinction.

Rule of thumb is each Columbia river dam is killing up to 5-10% of the returning adults. Dam counts support this. Does the same for the smolts as they attemtp to migrate to the ocean. It was true these fish would take a few weeks to move from Idaho to the estuary. Now they have to swim through lakes. By sheer statistical math alone (removing half the dams they must cross) will be enough to at least stop extinction. Fish counts prior to the damming of the lower snake show this to be true.

One point of the article said that Redden's forced spill was a part of the runs bouncing back from near extinction. This is absolutely false (But is certainly helps). For what ever reason ocean conditions for the the Columbia fish runs took a big upswing towards the end of 1990's. And paid monster dividends in 2001 and 2002. Wild counts of chinook and steelhead returning back to Idaho these two years was similar to the 50's. Pre-lower snake dam era. The long standing drought of the 90's has as much to do with poor runs as anything. Improved precipitation and cooler summers (in the columbia basin) is really going to show some better runs over the next 3-5 years.

Once the water from the sky dries up and the region slides into another drought...And another series of long scorching record setting summer heat happens...These fish will once again be circling the drain towards extinction. It will happen almost overnight.

The only thing that is going to save these wild fish from dissappearing is getting rid of these 4 dams AND the massive hatchery plants. Hatchery plants need to be used carefully. Dworshak dam has all but extirpated the Clearwater's native salmon and steelhead. There is an obligation to continue to produce these hatchery fish. Same for the runs above Hells Canyon. Habitat is in reasonable shape in the Salmon and Ronde drainages. The Salmon River in particular is the key in all of this. Let it go wild.

Anonymous says:
May 07, 2009 08:15 AM
A reply to ERG, Breachem, and Mr. Johnson,

At the risk of repeating myself, I need to state again that I am no fan of the four lower Snake River dams. Although I, too, would like to see them go, I do not believe that will even remotely begin to solve the problems plaguing salmon runs. First, ERG, there is actually a lot of subterranean debate within the science community of how much spawning habitat actually exists along that lower reach of the river. Simple miles do not equal the "triple" extension you claim, and there is in any case a lot of other mitigating issues such as accumulated sediment and toxic and heavy metal deposits that have worked their way into the ecosystem since the mid-1950s. These are serious issues, and there is also a lot of genuine debate over whether it is better to dredge, wash, or leave those deposits in place with no clear answers on any side. Second, Breachem, the rule of thumb that you invoke is a good ten to fifteen years out of date. The technical changes made by the Corps and BurRec have significantly improved survival passage over time, but this is also a purely arithmetical calculation that doesn't account for the idiosyncrasies of individual structures. In the case of the Columbia Basin, for example, those four lower dams are not great, but they pale in comparison to the effects of upstream blockages such as Dworshak and Hells Canyon nor as impeding of migration as the downstream pools behind John Day and especially McNary, the latter two of which are never coming down as long as the combined shipping interests of the Tri-Cities and Portland remain powerful. In other words, as I stated before, the four lower Snake Dams are a relatively minor component of a vast set of problems, and I doubt the claims that breaching will make much difference, even for individual stocks such as the fall chinook and Imnaha runs. Finally, Mr. Johnson, yes, harvest is an issue, but I would put the matter differently than you. First off, railing against Indians is a tired and racist-saturated strawman. As the last in line, they have always been the first to be restricted even though they have long (say, 1860s) had the least impact on harvest, and in any case they have court-tested treaty rights that all the fulmination in the world will not diminish. Second, the problem with nets is less their existence than how and by whom they are used. The main problem right now is the inordinate take by non-local harvesters. For example, well over half of the southeast Alaska ocean chinook fishery (combining troll and purse seiners) relies on Columbia Basin stocks, and the single largest component of the northern and central BC ocean chinook fishery also comes from Columbia Basin stocks. We will never gain effective management of these stocks until we can calibrate them to ecological conditions, and that will never happen until we return harvest to the basin. This means, in part, returning to some form of net-based harvest. Thus the problem is less technology than where the technology is used. This is a complicated, messy set of problems, and Redden's courtroom is not going to solve them.
Anonymous says:
May 07, 2009 11:18 AM

Fish passage at the dams is supposedly 98-99% now. The reservoirs still take their toll causing the 5-10 mortality. For both smolts and adults.

When its all said and done there is one absolute certainty: The fish will not be better off with these 4 dams in place. It has long been pointed out that removing all other limiting factors will not add up to keep the fish from eventually going extinct.

Spending billions upon billions of dollars to save 4 dams makes brilliant economic sense.

Anonymous says:
May 05, 2009 08:54 AM
i'm new here. am i doing it right?
Anonymous says:
May 05, 2009 02:27 PM
It would seem so!
Anonymous says:
May 06, 2009 04:01 PM
The dams do have there effects on fisheries but there are streams above the dams with good runs. Case in point: The Clearwater steelhead population. The Methow steelhead population. The Upriver Bright Chinook population at Hanford reach. Fisheries biggest threat is OVER Harvest! We harvest them faster than we can rear them and have in some cases since the late 1800's on the Columbia. These migratory populations once in the ocean are hammered by nets and then hammered again on the return by nets, tribes, and recreational fisherman. Let's start doing whats right for the fisheries. We spend millions of dollars on habitat with little results. Not that its a bad investment but its not bringing back more fish. We expand habitat and don't raise more fish for the habitat. People need to look at the history of the Columbia and when we started putting in hatcheries to support the decline of fisheries. The amount of canneries on the Columbia at one time is staggering. Over Harvest! We can rebuild our fisheries but we have change our ways. Speaking for the silent voice of fisheries.
Anonymous says:
May 07, 2009 12:46 AM
Mr. Johnson,

The Clearwater happens to be in the poorest shape of the remaining Snake tribs. Before Dworshak blocked the NF Clearwater this system produced (even being severely depressed through the old Lewiston dam and major overharvest during the late 1800's-1920') on average 25,000 to 50,000 WILD steelhead. The biggest summer run steelhead in the lower 48. Fish that would rival ANYTHING currently being caught in northern British Columbia.

The Lewiston damsite also made the Chinook go extinct in the early 1900's. Somehow the steelhead held on. The Chinook that return the Clearwater today that are not raised in a hatchery pen came from the Salmon River in an attempt to re-seed once that fish killing dam came down.

As each snake dam came online the run continued to slide ever quicker. Then came Dworshak. Wiped out the run. Gone. Mid 90's the wild B run had declined to about 700 fish. Recently the run is AT BEST a couple thousand fish.

The Methow is another bad example. It's hatchery fish are listed as threatened because they are all that is left of the upper columbia genes that were wiped out with Grand Coulee.

Hanford Reach is the only free flowing stretch left on the Columbia that still returns salmon/steelhead. Even these wild fall chinook have taken a nosedive in recent years.

You are correct that cannery harvest is what started this whole mess. They wiped out the fish. Instead of being smart about it and just stopping the harvest they decided to run with a scientifically unproven method of fish culture. Right about the same time the canneries went belly up is when mechanized land alteration began in earnest. Hatchery mitigation is what allowed the rivers to be dammed. Forests to be overcut. Fish harvest to continue full bore.

To this very day it continues.

Problem is the hatcheries have never produced the fish anywhere near promised. And now we know zoo raised salmon aren't the answer. They can't help in anyway to rebuild a population. Instead they continue to devastate it.

Anonymous says:
May 08, 2009 01:02 PM
Please see the first story in this two part series: Steve Hawley's recent piece on the BPA's influence over salmon science.[…]/columbia-basin-political-science

Anonymous says:
May 11, 2009 04:39 PM
so many think that taking out the 4 lower Snake river dams is the silver bullet but it's not. These dams affect only 4 of the 13 listed salmon species, removing dams won't help the rest. Besides, the dams provide enough clean, renewable power to light a city the size of Seattle. Saying it's only 1,000 megawatts is misleading. Renewables and conservation can't make up the difference. The regional will grow dramatically over the next 20 years and conservation won't keep up. And, as wind power is the most often cited renewable let's remember that it doesn't work when the wind's not blowing. Hydro is needed to fill in when the turbines are still
Anonymous says:
May 11, 2009 05:26 PM
You should read this new report from NW Energy Coalition. It's called "Bright Future" and clearly shows that the energy produced by the 4 lower Snake dams can be replaced AND coal-fired power plants can be phased out AND new load growth met for the region if we rely on a combination of conservation, increased energy efficiency standards and new renewable production from wind and solar. Hydropower can be good -- but not at the expense of 4 highly endangered populations of wild salmon. And how can you belittle the fact that there are 4 populations at stake? You make it sound like that's not that many out of 13. It's a third of all listed species that can be helped with removing just 4 dams out of 200 in the region!
Anonymous says:
May 11, 2009 09:28 PM
Of course removing those dams isn't a silver bullet. Anadromous fish populations in the Columbia basin are subject to a perfect storm of threats. There are lots of ways for a salmon smolt to die as it migrates downstream from Lewiston to the sea; reducing mortality from any factor means more adults returning upstream.

Mortality caused by the four dams on the Snake below Lewiston is huge. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, those dams accounted for at least 58% and as much as 92% of Snake River chinook smolt mortality between 1994 and 1999 ( Of course, other mortality factors should be addressed, but removing the dams is a no-brainer.

Let electric rates increase. In my personal utility-maximization equation, saving even a few salmon runs is worth paying for.
Anonymous says:
Aug 07, 2009 09:17 PM
I'm not from Oregon, Idaho, or Washington and am not well versed in the politics and science of dams' effect on salmon, but reading this piece I can't help but ask, if you breach the four Snake River dams will it do any good if there are still lower-river dams impeding the run (e.g., the John Day Dam)? From the sound of this article, it sounds like it will. Why? Why can salmon get around certain dams, like the John Day or the Grand Coulee, and not others?
Anonymous says:
Aug 09, 2009 04:38 PM
The difference, as I understand it, is that salmon breeding in the Snake River basin have to deal with four more dams than those breeding below the confluence of the Snake. Upper Columbia River salmon fisheries are not doing well either, and the cause might be the same in that case--an additive effect created by each additional dam that the adults must pass on their upstream migration and that the juviniles must pass (or be trucked around) during their downstream migration--but the Upper Columbia River dams are also much more difficult for salmon to pass.

The Snake River dams have good fish passage structures in place and they may not be impeding the upstream migration of adults to a degree sufficient to explain their declines, but a paper from three years ago (see Muir, W. D., D. M. Marsh, B. P. Sandford, S. G. Smith, J. G. Williams. 2006. Post-hydropower system delayed mortality of transported Snake River stream-type chinook salmon: unraveling the mystery. in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 135: 1523-1534.) proposed that the biggest impact of the Snake River dams may actually be that juvenile survival in the estuary is much lower for fish that are transported in trucks around all the Snake River and lower Columbia River dams. The authors suggest that the fish are arriving in the estuary, or rather, being dumped into the estuary, before they've had sufficient time to grow and adapt to changing conditions downstream. In a dam-free river system, these fish would have a gradual, 1-2 week trip downstream. Transported fish make the trip in 2 days. The data shows that the period during which survival is lowest for these juvenile salmon is just after being dumped into the estuary.

Here's the kicker: with the dams in place, the flow of the river has been slowed to a degree that a "natural" in-stream migration downriver would now take much, much longer than 1-2 weeks and the juviniles would encounter much more hostile conditions (i.e., warmer temperatures, exposure to greater numbers and variety of predators, etc.). So that paper that I mentioned suggested, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise, that the single action that would produce the greatest benefit to these endangered runs in the Snake River basin would be to remove the four lower Snake River dams. Of course we also need to make improvements in breeding habitat and the hatchery system before we can make any serious headway toward recovery.