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Know the West

Salmon Salvation

Will a new political order be enough to finally bring the dams down?


Scott Van Bergen settled onto a bench at the back of U.S. District Judge James Redden's Portland courtroom on a Friday morning in March and waited for the ninth -- or perhaps the 29th -- round of Pacific Northwest salmon vs. the dams to begin. His high school zoology class had just studied endangered species, and his teacher offered him the opportunity to see where a significant part of the effort to save imperiled creatures takes place -- the federal courts.

Van Bergen is a bright Oregon native who aspires to become a marine biologist. He hopes "there will be a movement to bring the river back to where it was naturally," and that healthy runs of wild salmon and steelhead will swim the Columbia and Snake rivers by the time he gets his college degree.   

Can the Pacific Northwest -- indeed the nation -- fulfill Van Bergen's dream of wild salmon recovery? For the first time in decades, the answer may be yes. Many biologists have long been clear about the best way to achieve it: 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.

For nearly 20 years, however, the powerful federal agencies now appearing before Redden -- including the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region's hydropower, and the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, which run some of the region's 200 major dams -- have strenuously avoided dam removal. They've spent $8 billion on almost every conceivable alternative with little consequent improvement in the fortunes of wild fish. And they've cultivated allies among inland ports, utilities, the barging industry, the vanishing aluminum industry and politicians, including Washington state's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.

Some of those formidable obstacles to dam removal remain, but there are signs that the balance is tipping. President Barack Obama appears dedicated to science and transparency; a well-respected fisheries scientist is now in charge of a key federal agency; and new Northwestern politicians have signaled their willingness to help solve the salmon crisis. Some eastern Washington farmers and other dam beneficiaries appear willing to contemplate a future without the four Snake dams, and renewables in the region already produce as much electricity as these dams provide. A ban on commercial salmon fishing along the Oregon and California coasts for the second consecutive year will cost fishing communities hundreds of millions of dollars, adding urgency to salmon restoration. Most of all, Judge Redden is determined to make government agencies finally follow the Endangered Species Act.

Throughout the Columbia Basin, there is "more interest than ever in working to recover these fish," says Michael Carrier, natural resources policy director for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.


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."

This is where science and the law, including the Endangered Species Act, are supposed to come in. The law requires the BPA and the Corps to operate the hydropower dams in such a way that fish recover. And the National Marine Fisheries Service -- also called NOAA Fisheries -- is charged with making sure BPA and the Corps comply.

This means NOAA has long been subject to tremendous pressure from pro-hydropower politicians, including former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who used his powerful Senate committee positions to champion the hydropower industry and oppose spending on salmon recovery measures. He even tried to eliminate the federal Fish Passage Center after it demonstrated that court-ordered spill was boosting salmon survival.

Through politicians like Craig, says Wood, NOAA "has been swayed by the interests of BPA and the industries. And it has manipulated the science over the years to preserve the status quo that favors the industries."

Wood, Sando and other scientists and scholars believe Obama's appointment of Jane Lubchenco to run NOAA and his nomination of Jo-Ellen Darcy to run the Army Corps of Engineers will help turn this around. Both are smart, seasoned, known for a strong environmental ethic and accustomed to politicians trying to intimidate or outflank them.

Lubchenco, a highly regarded marine biologist at Oregon State University, has promised a new era at NOAA. While she has declined to comment specifically on salmon, she recently told The Oregonian that her agency "will be revisiting a number of different policies and asking ‘Are they consistent with the best possible science?' "

Lubchenco has already shown she's not afraid of tough decisions. She's pushing for changes to eliminate over-fishing in New England, a sometimes-hostile controversy that makes the Pacific Northwest salmon dispute seem like polite conversation. Lubchenco could dramatically improve the federal government's salmon efforts by calling for changes to the current biological opinion as part of a settlement offer.

Darcy, former deputy staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, likewise gets high marks from government watchdogs.

Her committee position gave her a "great understanding of the Corps, warts and all," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "She has congressional ties and she has the trust of a lot of people in leadership -- especially the Senate. And I think she understands the issues well, whether it's modernizing the Corps or salmon recovery."

The federal agencies defend their current salmon recovery plan and dismiss the need for dam removal. Last spring, they negotiated a $900 million settlement with some of the tribes that had long been their courtroom foes. They also point to better salmon runs. For example, approximately 246,600 spring/summer chinook and steelhead made it above the Snake dams last year, compared to the 172,400 tallied after the first lower Snake dam was constructed. However, that optimistic figure largely represents hatchery fish. Overall, the Snake's wild spring/summer chinook and steelhead runs have declined by nearly 75 percent since 1962. And many biologists and conservationists say where runs have improved, it's largely because of Judge Redden's orders for increased spill at the dams.

The agencies take strong exception to any suggestion that they politicize, bend or suppress science. "The Northwest Fisheries Science Center is physically removed from the regional office where policy is made," and has an independent director and a separate budget, NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman says. Some critics simply misunderstand the relationship between science and policymaking, he adds. If the agency makes a choice that doesn't mesh with someone's point of view, "the temptation is to say the science has been ignored. Somebody has to make a decision based on the best available science and other realities -- how much money do we have, how much economic and social disruption will take place."

"BPA has a long history of adjusting hydropower operations to protect fish, often at great cost," BPA spokesman Michael Milstein adds. "After flood control, which is a matter of public safety, the top priority for hydropower operations is fish protection. That's part of our mandate, and we support it."

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. This also is changing. The Northwest's two newest senators appear more interested in finding resolution than continuing the long, expensive legal battles over the federal government's inability to produce a viable salmon plan. U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, who replaced Craig, spoke of bringing salmon advocates and hydropower interests together to find a solution during his campaign last fall. Oregon's freshman senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, said during his campaign that he is willing to support removing the four Snake dams if science shows that's the best solution and if the people most affected by dam removal are taken care of. Though cautious, that's a notable contrast to incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, a long-time dam champion, whom Merkley defeated last fall. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for studying ways to bring Pacific salmon back to Nevada, adding important political weight to Risch and Merkley's efforts.

But not all Northwest lawmakers will push to change the status quo. Some salmon advocates say Sen. Murray -- who didn't respond to requests for comment -- appears to oppose a regional discussion of  the issue, or a study of dam breaching by an independent body like the National Academy of Sciences, because she fears the results. Murray "wants certainty for the utility community and that sort of analysis would send them back to the drawing board," says Jim Martin, retired fisheries chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and conservation director of the Berkley Conservation Institute. "If Snake River salmon get saved, it won't be because of her."

For the first time in memory, some eastern Washington and northern Idaho farmers -- who benefit the most from the barge transportation the four Snake dams provide -- say they would welcome a discussion of alternative ways to move their crops to market. "Rather than pitting farmers against salmon interests, we should sit down and have the conversation we should have had a long time ago," says Bryan Jones, a fourth-generation wheat and cattle grower from Dusty, Wash. Jones is one of about 70 individual farmers, grain cooperative representatives and other agricultural interests who have been meeting with West Coast commercial fishermen and salmon advocates to explore solutions for salmon and transportation. Farmers aren't going to put their livelihoods on the line to save an endangered species, Jones says, but might trade barging for dependable, affordable rail service and better highways.

Salmon advocates support funding for improved rails and roads. They also say they will back $1 billion in repairs to John Day Dam -- a major link in the Columbia River barging system located 110 miles east of Portland.

There are also a small but noteworthy number of Lewiston area residents who see this as an opportunity to address the economic stagnation and mounting flood risk that came with the inland seaport created by the dams. That's a decided shift in attitude.

Lewiston, which doesn't have interstate access, lost some of its rail transportation as a result of the barge system. And Lower Granite Reservoir is filling with sediment, which could cause flooding. But neither dredging nor raising the levees is economically feasible, says 35-year-old Dustin Aherin, who started Citizens for Progress, a small grassroots group. The other options: Live with New Orleans-style flood risk -- downtown Lewiston sits below the reservoir level -- or remove one of the dams. Meanwhile, Lewiston cannot develop its waterfront with any confidence because it doesn't know what's going to happen with Lower Granite Dam or the levees, Aherin says. "Folks my age have no real solid future here because we don't have good transportation (and) we don't have the ability to attract new business or industry." A majority of Lewiston residents might not choose salmon over dams, but if it comes down to raising the levees, "there are many who would support dam removal."

Meanwhile, Potlatch Corp. -- a Spokane, Wash.-based lumber and paper products company that opposes dam removal -- now relies mostly on trucks and rail, rather than barges, to move products from its Lewiston mill, says retired Potlatch executive Jim Bradford. "It seems to me it's pretty silly to ignore what most credible scientists say is the most viable way to restore the salmon -- take out the (four lower Snake) dams. (But) there are a lot of political hurdles that have to be jumped."

The hurdles include the ports of Lewiston, Clarkson and Whitman County, and the region's aluminum industry -- which, with its aging smelters and stiff international competition, continues to shrink. Public utilities that benefit from the hydro system's subsidized power also have long opposed dam removal, but even that appears less insurmountable than it was in the 1990s. Pacific Northwest wind generation capacity, which also enjoys tax subsidies, is expected to reach at least 6,000 megawatts by 2013, a sizeable portion of the region's power demand.

But BPA's clout will be the most difficult to overcome. The agency is able to keep a low profile -- it's headquartered in Portland instead of Washington, D.C., and is primarily funded through power sales and transmission fees, not congressional appropriations. It is extremely adept at looking out for its own interests, maintaining a government relations office in Washington, D.C. And though there are laws prohibiting government agencies from lobbying, the agency has paid a firm named Washington2 Advocates about $700,000 over the last seven years to be its eyes and ears on Capitol Hill.

  Monthly work reports to BPA show Tony Williams from Washington2 talking to members of Congress about Judge Redden's court and salmon recovery. At a golfing fund-raiser for U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in 2006, Williams assured BPA, "I'll be able to talk directly to (Simpson) and his staff." Williams also is a contributor to Sen. Murray's campaign coffers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. BPA insists that the firm has stayed strictly within the law.

"BPA is more politically active than any federal agency I deal with," says Dan Seligman, a Seattle attorney, who publishes BPAWatch.com. "The current administrator, Steve Wright, like many of his predecessors, is politically savvy and knows how the game is played in D.C." Still, Seligman, who has worked for public power utilities,  acknowledges that BPA has a difficult task balancing power demands and fish needs. "No matter what it does, someone is going to complain."

The BPA and other federal agencies were able to use their political savvy and sizeable financial resources to win the support of some of the tribes. Last spring's settlement calls for the agencies to fund $900 million in habitat and hatchery projects over the next decade. In return, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Yakama, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes were required to recant all of their scientific analysis critical of the federal government's salmon plans and cheerlead the agencies' current biological opinion.

Wright "has the authority to allocate huge amounts of money without any oversight," says Sando, former Idaho Fish and Game director. "He was able to use the power of the purse to dictate an end game, particularly for the tribes."

Since the agreements were signed, a panel of independent scientists tasked with reviewing these projects questioned whether 11 of 14 BPA-funded efforts would benefit salmon or other wild fish. 

The Nez Perce and Spokane tribes, which also have treaty rights to salmon, have their own problems with the settlements. After some negotiation with BPA, they opted to remain part of a legal challenge to the current salmon recovery plan along with a coalition of conservation groups, sport and commercial fishing interests and the state of Oregon.

"This was an attempt to silence the tribes on dam breaching being the best way to recover endangered salmon," says Rebecca Miles, who serves on the Nez Perce Executive Committee. "The Nez Perce couldn't allow themselves to be silenced on Snake River dam removal. We could not recant the science. And the Nez Perce couldn't sign an agreement that included supporting a (biological opinion) we knew was illegal under the Endangered Species Act."

The tribes who did settle take offense at such criticisms. 

It's "a direct insult to us as tribes," then-Inter-Tribal Fish Commission chairwoman Fidelia Andy told The Oregonian after the accord was announced in 2008. And it's still insulting, commission spokesman Charles Hudson says. "For the record," he adds, "Snake River dam breaching remains a component of all of our member tribes' salmon policies."

Beyond that, the tribal agreements were given a thorough airing with the public, interest groups, utilities and the Northwest congressional delegation, BPA's Milstein adds -- all part of the agency's determination to hold itself accountable.

Fish advocates, however, believe saving wild salmon will require still more accountability. And for the first time in almost 20 years, they appear to have a receptive ear in the White House. They are calling on the administration to replace the director of BPA and the regional director of NOAA, and to either quit silencing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologists or appoint a new regional director in Oregon. Conservation groups and outdoor companies also are calling for Obama to task a salmon director from the Council on Environmental Quality to deal with West Coast salmon problems, from vanishing runs in California to the mine threatening Alaska's Bristol Bay fishery. Finally, salmon advocates want the administration to bring everyone with a stake in the Columbia/Snake crisis to the table and help them craft a science-based settlement that genuinely helps wild fish and Northwest communities.

But time is running out.

"Wild fish are in a serious and depleted state and, with the influence of climate change, many stocks are doomed," says Don Chapman, a well-regarded fisheries scientist and former energy-industry consultant who once opposed dam removal. Scientists estimate that global warming will cause the region to lose 40 percent of its wild salmon and steelhead populations over the next 60 years, especially the fish spawning in the lower Columbia Basin. "I've become a dam-breaching advocate over the last five years because I see the handwriting on the wall," Chapman says. Because of its elevation and pristine condition, "Idaho has the habitat that will mitigate" for warmer river temperatures, decreased snow pack and other global warming factors that will erode salmon habitat. And because this is the best remaining habitat in the Columbia Basin, salmon runs could increase dramatically -- if the lower Snake dams were removed.

"What you face now is inertia caused by people saying, ‘Look at the good runs.' These are composed primarily of hatchery fish -- hatchery fish are not part of recovery," Chapman adds. "This is about the future. We're talking about irreplaceable genetic material in these wild stocks."

At the end of the all-day court hearing, Judge Redden recommended the federal agencies consider amending the biological opinion to include breaching the four lower Snake dams as a last resort. If salmon aren't recovering five to seven years from now, "I don't think the answer can be, ‘Let's go do some more habitat work,' " Redden said. "By then, I think, the Corps should have their plan (for Snake River dam removal) ready to go." While he gave no timeline for ruling, he subsequently re-enforced the need for the dam removal option in a closed-door meeting with the federal agencies' attorneys. And many say Redden's keen judgment is the main reason the fish still have a chance.

After reflecting on his day in Judge Redden's court, Scott Van Bergen is optimistic about the future of Columbia and Snake wild salmon. "I think eventually there's going to be some sort of compromise reached," the future biologist says. "My feeling is we're going to start moving away from hydropower -- and dams will become obsolete and be removed or bypassed. Salmon are a big economic staple, whether it's for business or tourism.  (And) when you lose the salmon, you lose the tie to your heritage."

Freelance writer and author Ken Olsen covers the West from Oregon.