Now the fish have a technical alternative, a ride in a barge, imposed on them by federal agencies. For the past decade, employees of the Army Corps of Engineers have collected young salmon at lower Snake River dams, piped them into barges and shipped them downriver to release points below Bonneville Dam.
Favored by industry, it's a solution that results in maximum megawatts and smooth navigation for barges carrying wheat and other commodities to Portland. But it has done little to stop the death spiral of the Snake River salmon, whose numbers crashed from 10,000 adults in 1993 to 1,000 last year.
This year's spring and summer migration promises to be different. If all goes according to plan, many juvenile salmon will swim through the gantlet of dams on their own. The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with saving salmon, has called on the Army Corps to allow about half of the juvenile fish to flow over the dam spillways. The rest will travel by barge.
"This is a major step forward for NMFS (the National Marine Fisheries Service) - they've never voluntarily left fish in the river," says Justin Hayes, conservation scientist for Idaho Rivers United.
Why the shift? Environmentalists point to two reasons: nature and election-year politics.
Mountain snowpack in the region is so deep this year that the Snake River is raging at a pace faster than fish can be gathered. Then, in a startling change, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, normally an ardent pro-barging force, has endorsed this year's trial, as has Rep. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, newly elected Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore. It helped that Idaho GOP Gov. Phil Batt agreed in principle.
Election-year politics may have persuaded Craig to move an inch or two. In November, he faces a challenge from Boise Democrat Walter Minnick, a seasoned environmentalist. Thus far, the endangered salmon issue has proven to be a hot one; the two have sparred over who's going to do more for the fish.
Pat Ford of Save our Wild Salmon in Boise credits Crapo with pulling together the supporters of the 50-50 spill-barge plan. Crapo's position is not shared by the Columbia River Alliance, a lobby representing barging, utility, farm and aluminum interests. Alliance executive director Bruce Lovelin says enough scientific research has been done to show that fish are better off barged.
Industry opposition may be based more on lost megawatts. "If this program costs $60 to $70 million in foregone revenue, we have to question whether it's a good use of our money," Lovelin says.
For fish advocates, the plan to leave some fish in the river this year is the best news they've heard since the spring of 1994. That's when then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus won a lawsuit against the Fisheries Service, the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation. In that case, Judge Malcolm F. Marsh ruled the agencies were guilty of operating the Snake in an "arbitrary and capricious' manner and that they needed to instigate a "major overhaul" of the hydrosystem. A similar lawsuit, filed against the Northwest Power Planning Council, created in 1980 to make equal partners of fish and hydropower, won a favorable decision in the 9th Circuit Court.
But both decisions were ignored after the Republican tidal wave swept the region in the 1994 election. Andrus retired, leaving the region without a pro-fish political leader, and Batt punted on the Marsh decision, waiting a year to formulate a salmon policy. The balance of the eight-member Northwest Power Planning Council leadership then changed to a pro-barging position, as did the region's political leadership. And Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore. and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., passed a salmon-spending cap in Congress last year.
Environmentalists admit they - and the fish - have been on the defensive since the election. Ford notes that the Clinton administration has left Bush appointees in control of the Fisheries Service and the Bonneville Power Administration since 1992. "The same folks who love barging are making the decisions," he says.
Now, with the November elections just around the corner, environmentalists are trying to push the Clinton administration to pay attention to the salmon slaughter. In mid-April, pro-fish forces in the Northwest, as well as Sierra Club members nationwide, went door-to-door with "fish hangers." The cards, shaped like a fish, urge residents to contact their political representatives and Clinton and tell them to save the salmon, forests and the environment. They hope to reach 2.5 million people.
"We can hammer these agencies till we're blue in the face," says Diane Valentine, a staffer with the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "Now we're trying to focus everything back on the Clinton administration."
Spilling too much
Spilling fish is an art: Too much spill and the water below the dam churns into a broth of deadly gases. Too little, and power turbines suck in the fish, often killing them. Already this spring, the Army Corps is having a difficult time balancing these forces.
In mid-April, as the steelhead and salmon migration began, the Corps shut off four of six electric turbines at lower Granite Creek dam to allow divers to install an experimental fish passage to the face of the dam. Without the turbines, it was forced to send massive volumes of water through the dam's spillways; that created a deadly condition known as nitrogen supersaturation below the dam. Between 35 percent and 70 percent of the fish checked below the dam showed the symptoms of nitrogen gas poisoning, according to Army Corps officials.
Charles Ray of Idaho Rivers United was outraged. "This should be a good year for migrating fish," he says. "Instead, the Corps is turning it into a disaster."
Turned-off turbines and uncontrolled spills could be a recurring problem through this migration season, admit officials from the Corps and the Bonneville Power Administration, the quasi-federal agency that markets power from the system. Several turbines in the system have been out of commission for a year, and this gives the agencies less ability to control this year's heavy runoff.
Environmentalists say the agencies still aren't fully committed to controlling spill for the fish. "The bad news is that the agencies are blowing some of the best fish migration conditions in recent years," says Pat Ford. "The good news is that even if they blow it, the salmon will fare better this year than they have in the last two."
Yet another lawsuit
Even before this year's migration, salmon advocates turned again to the courts for a more permanent solution. In March, they filed another lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in hopes of enforcing river-flow targets set in the agency's recovery plan. Ultimately, the Northwest tribes and the environmentalists say they want federal agencies to allow more than 50 percent of the salmon to swim down the rivers. And if federal agencies won't go that far - or if they continue to mishandle opportunities provided by nature - then they will continue to push through the courts for a more radical solution.
One alternative gaining some credibility is the "natural river" option - creating a new river channel that bypasses the dams. The Army Corps evaluated the option in official documents last year. The price tag: up to $800 million, or the equivalent of two year's spending on salmon recovery.
"It's expensive, but, if it's what the public wants, we'll do it," says Doug Arndt, a fish biologist with the Corps. Most environmentalists, however, say the top brass of the Corps remains committed to barging, no matter what the public thinks.
The Oregon Natural Resource Council, the Pacific Rivers Council, and five Indian tribes now publicly endorse the natural-river option, though it has yet to win support from an elected official.
Boise teacher Reed Burkholder, who has pursued a natural-river solution since 1993, says the loss of power would hardly be felt. Burkholder counts 15,000 jobs connected to the BPA, the Army Corps, the navigation industry, three lower Snake ports, eight aluminum companies, and 500 farms served by the Port of Lewiston. He compares that to a population of 8.7 million people living in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. "That means 8.7 million of us are getting screwed by 15,000 people who are controlling the issue," he says.
As for navigation, he points out that taxpayers annually fork out $8 million for dredging the Snake and Columbia waterway, $7.5 million to repair the locks at Ice Harbor Dam, $9.1 million for operation and maintenance - not to mention the $426 million it cost to build all eight dams in the first place.
"We own these navigators. We pay all of their bills. We have a right to shut them down," he says.
Barging proponent Lovelin, meanwhile, says it's "disruptive" to talk about lower Snake drawdowns or the natural river option. Spending about $400 million on salmon recovery is also questionable, he says. "How can you justify spending $400 million, when the salmon run amounts to only 2,000 fish?" he says, which amounts to $200,000 per fish.
In light of last year's dismal returns and the existing political realities, even former Gov. Andrus has said what others are thinking, that the situation as it now exists is hopeless. "The lower Snake River dams are to the salmon what the tarpits were to the dinosaurs," he said at a conference last summer.
Environmentalists aren't ready to give up yet.
Preliminary estimates indicate as many as 4,000 fish may return to the upper Snake River to spawn this year, buying a few more years for the imperiled stocks.
HCN associate editor Paul Larmer contributed to this story.