Salmon simplification


The article, “Salmon Salvation” offers a simple answer to a complex problem (HCN, 5/11/09). “Many scientists,” it says (without naming any), think taking out the four Lower Snake River dams will simply bring back salmon. That’s like saying many people voted for John McCain: perhaps true, but blind to the big picture.
Scientists realize 150 years of European-American development has had many effects on Northwest salmon. If the Snake River dams were the overriding negative factor, why are more than a dozen other West Coast salmon stocks – some on undammed rivers – listed under the Endangered Species Act? The reason is that many factors harm salmon – dams, yes, but also habitat destruction, pollution, indiscriminate fishing, predation and genetic dilution from hatcheries. Even in the Columbia system, nine of 13 listed salmon do not return to the Snake River and are unaffected by dams there.
The article also suggests wind power could replace energy from dams. That’s impossible, because wind doesn’t blow all the time. Wind has grown quickly in the Northwest because hydroelectric dams provide ideal backup energy that can ramp up quickly when wind stops blowing, and vice versa. Groups who want dams removed acknowledge that replacement energy would come from burning more fossil fuel, releasing greenhouse gases that cause their own harm to salmon through global warming.
Protecting and recovering salmon involves many actions across the landscape and, unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet. Even those choices, such as dam removal, that look like silver bullets have hard tradeoffs more accurately portrayed as environment versus environment than fish versus dams. Depicting dam breaching as an easy fix does readers, and salmon, a disservice.
Gregory K. Delwiche
Vice President, Environment, Fish and Wildlife
Bonneville Power Administration
Other inaccuracies in the article:
1) Federal agencies have spent $8 billion with “little consequent improvement in the fortunes of wild fish.”
Actually, many Columbia wild salmon stocks, including those on the Snake have following a generally positive trend for several years. The numbers of Snake River spring/summer and fall chinook are both are many times higher than they were when listed in the 1990s. These counts are wild fish. Biologists believe that significant improvements in dam passage has contributed to that. They are not recovered, but they are improving, so the article is inaccurate in saying they’re not.
2) “For decades, many Northwestern politicians have tried to avoid the dam removal question, not wanting to draw attention to the publicly subsidized hydropower that the region enjoys at national taxpayer expense.”
The hydropower is not subsidized. Neither BPA nor the rest of the hydropower system receives taxpayer funds. BPA pays the costs of operating the hydropower system with ratepayer revenues, not federal funds. The Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation receive some appropriated money to cover other purposes of the dams, such as flood control, but not for hydropower.
(Reference:   DOE Budget, 2010,
3) Reservoirs do not increase the migration time of juvenile salmon anywhere close to three months.
(Reference: "Survival estimates for the passage of spring-migrating juvenile salmonids through Snake and Columbia dams and reservoirs," 2007, Fish Ecology Division, Northwest Fisheries Science Center.)
4) “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.”
This implies that barging and trucking is the only way agencies help fish past dams, but that’s not at all true. Agencies do transport some fish at times of the year when science has shown that it boosts fish survival. However, for many years (including long prior to court orders) the agencies have spilled water to help fish downstream. This is a “spread the risk” strategy that independent scientists have endorsed. The agencies have also made numerous improvements at the dams, such as upgraded turbines and fish passageways, which have dramatically improved survival for fish that remain in the river. Who are the scientists who say barging kills more fish and where has this science appeared? We monitor survival carefully and if this were true we wouldn’t be doing it.
5) “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.”
In fact, salmon already have access to as much habitat as is available beyond the dams, because the dams have very effective fish passage that has been dramatically improved in recent years. BPA and others have invested great amounts of money and resources in repairing damage to that habitat from grazing and other impacts. Finally, access to much of that 70 percent of habitat mentioned in the article is blocked not by the four Snake dams, but by the privately-owned Hells Canyon dams, which have no fish passage and were not mentioned in the article.
6) “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.”
Again, this habitat is already accessible. By saying the dams must be removed so fish can reach habitat, the article gives readers the false impression that fish cannot pass these dams. Also, much of this habitat is not pristine – spawning and rearing habitat in many tributaries has been damaged by grazing, for instance. Much of this habitat is not in wilderness but actually on private and public land further upstream. BPA and others continue to put great effort into restoring this habitat.
7) “That means putting every drop of water through turbines.”
The federal agencies operating the hydro system never put “every drop of water” through turbines. It is common practice to spill water around turbines for fish. In 2008, for example, BPA spent $275 million buying replacement power to make up for power not generated at the dams because water was being diverted for fish. Another $274 million worth of electricity could have been generated if not for fish protections. These costs were covered by Northwest ratepayers. This isn’t to say that fish protections aren’t worth it – they are. But by leaving out these important facts, the story gives readers a false impression.
(Reference: 2008 Annual Report,

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