For centuries, Snake River salmon have followed the force of raging rivers on their 750-mile journey from Idaho's mountains to the sea. Yet their migration hasn't been natural since the mid-1970s, when the Snake and Columbia rivers were converted into a hydroelectric factory and a 350-mile-long navigation canal.
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
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
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
Why the shift? Environmentalists point to
two reasons: nature and election-year
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
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."
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
Environmentalists aren't ready to give up
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