Nevada stakes its salmon claim

Snake River dams run up against a powerful alliance in an unlikely place

  • Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not to renew licenses for the Hells Canyon dams on the Snake River unless they are modified for fish passage.


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Last summer, representatives from a coalition of Nevada sportsmen's groups wrote Reid, encouraging him to challenge the Hells Canyon relicensing. "The relicensing process represents a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, and perhaps our last chance, to pave the way for the return of the once-mighty salmon fishery to Nevada's northern rivers," says Larry Johnson, who owns a geotechnical engineering firm in Reno and is president of the Coalition for Nevada's Wildlife. "This project just stirs your excitement, your anticipation of what could be. (And) it's a wrong that needs to be set right."

Johnson, a member of the Konkow Band of the Maidu Tribe, grew up spearing chinook salmon about 100 miles west of Reno on California's Feather River, where a dam also wiped out the salmon. "They were a major part of our subsistence in the winter," Johnson says.

Members of the coalition, which includes representatives from Safari Club International, Truckee River Fly Fishermen, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited and other groups, are quick to emphasize they aren't "typical green environmentalists." "Most of us are pretty conservative," says Johnson, who has been involved in the construction of more than 40 irrigation and tailings dams in the region. Johnson and his fellow sportsmen also work with mining companies and livestock organizations in their restoration efforts.

Coalition members believe they can help restore salmon without instituting the land-use restrictions that can come with the Endangered Species Act. "This can be accomplished in ways that everyone gets a piece," Johnson says. "The last thing I want to see is a radical environmental group filing suit saying grazing has to be cancelled because of the return of salmon."

Not all Nevada sportsmen support the salmon restoration effort. Andy Burk of the Reno Fly Shop says the money should be used for more feasible projects than a fish-passage system. "I would rather spend that money on riparian restoration on the Truckee and the East Walker" rivers, Burk says.

Idaho Power attempted to operate a fish-passage system at the first of the three Hells Canyon dams, but it ultimately failed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission then required the company to build salmon hatcheries as mitigation for its failure to meet its fish-passage obligations.

That's woefully inadequate, says Don Duff, a retired Forest Service fisheries scientist and aquatic ecologist who worked in Nevada, Utah, and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and California. "Hatchery fish are subject to more diseases and you lose the genetic strains of the wild fish that can survive."

Duff and other scientists believe fish passage in Hells Canyon is feasible. The Shoshone-Paiute Tribes have proposed capturing salmon below the Hells Canyon dams and then releasing them above the blocked areas. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is proposing a "trap and haul" test program where juvenile salmon are collected at a weir in Pine Creek, a tributary of the Snake, and trucked around Hells Canyon Dam.

"If we can put people on the moon and manufacture unmanned reconnaissance planes to use in the war, we can get fish over these dams," Duff says. "If we don't do this, we face the extinction of 13 fish species."

History, however, reveals the flaws in the fish-passage system. Fish ladders have worked in the Cedar River watershed in western Washington, where a single dam stands between chinook salmon and their spawning grounds. But the eight-dam gantlet that migrating salmon have to run on the Columbia and Snake rivers downstream from Hells Canyon is another story. The dams continue to kill the majority of wild salmon and steelhead despite fish ladders, nearly 30 years of barging and trucking smolts around the dams, and the addition of multimillion dollar fish-passage gadgets.

Indeed, the Northern California Council Federation of Fly Fishers - which supports Reid's initiative - says the region cannot afford to focus solely on the Hells Canyon problem. "It is our feeling that (Hells Canyon) fish passage without improvements on the state of the salmon in the Snake (River) in general won't be helpful," says C. Mark Rockwell, vice president for conservation. The group is asking Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to hold hearings on the desperate state of Columbia-Snake salmon because "frankly there is no time left to keep talking," Rockwell says. "It's time for action and only Congress can make that push." Reid's staff says he supports such hearings.

Meanwhile, sportsmen, fish biologists and other salmon advocates believe Reid's involvement could help prevent the remaining Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks from becoming extinct, keeping their wild genetics alive and viable for the day when there is again salmon passage all the way to Nevada.

"I may never catch a salmon," says Johnson of the Coalition for Nevada's Wildlife. "It's just the thought that my grandchild might see that."

"This should put more pressure on the people who own the dams to finally do something," adds Tom Smith, president of the Truckee River Fly Fishers. "If they don't, sportsmen and politicians are finally going to take action against them. It's a big snowball they're not going to be able to stop."

Ken Olsen has covered the environment and natural resource issues throughout the West for more than 20 years.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.