The Columbia and its tributaries once produced 16 million chinook, coho, chum and sockeye each year. But the fish have been decimated by over-fishing, habitat destruction and a deluge of genetically inferior hatchery fish that compete for food and habitat. Of all the hazards, however, dams have proven the most lethal.
Historically, juvenile salmon rode spring snowmelt downstream to the Pacific Ocean in a matter of days or weeks. Reservoirs increase this journey by as much as three months, hindering the salmon's time-sensitive transformation to a saltwater fish. Reservoirs also harbor predators, incubate diseases and heat water to lethal levels. Salmon that survive to maturity then have to renegotiate the dams to return to their natal stream, often hundreds of miles inland, to spawn.
The Snake River, the Columbia's largest tributary, produced nearly half of the region's salmon and steelhead before it was dammed. Four federal dams on the lower Snake, which produce a moderate amount of electricity and allow farmers to barge wheat from Lewiston, Idaho, 465 miles to the ocean, are particularly harmful. They provide no flood control and supply only a few irrigators. Several wild salmon and steelhead populations crashed after the last of these dams was completed in 1975, as even a Corps biologist predicted when they were proposed.
Despite harvest restrictions, habitat restoration and some hatchery reform, the fish continued to decline. Coho became extinct in 1988. Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock Tribe successfully petitioned to have sockeye put on the endangered species list in 1991. A dozen other salmon and steelhead stocks followed. Puget Sound orcas, which rely on Columbia and Snake salmon, are also now endangered.
Under federal law, the BPA, the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation must restore wild salmon and steelhead devastated by the dams. But since the early 1990s, the courts have dismissed the agencies' salmon recovery blueprints, or biological opinions, as woefully inadequate. Meanwhile, the agencies have relied on barging and trucking juvenile fish around the dams -- an expensive process that many scientists say can kill even more fish.
The agencies "used up years and years of precious time for saving the species," says University of Oregon School of Law professor Mary Wood, an Endangered Species Act expert. "Clinton squandered opportunities on salmon and climate through negligence and a compromise attitude. At least with Bush, you knew he was up to no good."
The current salmon plan, produced by the Bush administration, is now under review by Judge Redden, who questioned its legal and scientific merit at the March hearing. He has already ordered the agencies to spill more water over the dams this spring to improve juvenile salmon survival. And he's rejected two federal fish recovery plans, repeatedly warning that dam removal has to be an option if wild fish runs don't dramatically improve. It's clear he won't allow BPA and the Corps endless chances to get it right.
The battle playing out in Redden's courtroom is a contest between wild salmon and subsidized barging and electricity. In the case of the four lower Snake dams, 1,000 megawatts of power and 140 miles of barge transportation are pitted against salmon access to 70 percent of the remaining intact spawning habitat in the Columbia River basin.
At the height of summer air-conditioning season, BPA sells surplus power to California at premium prices, using the profits to subsidize electrical rates for public utilities and industry in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, that peak demand comes at "exactly the point in time the fish need the water the most," says Rod Sando, former director of both Idaho Fish and Game and the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. "BPA has a big disincentive to help salmon recover. Their customers, especially the public utilities, want to see power as low-cost as possible. That means putting every drop of water through turbines."