Environmentalists may have finally found a chink in the armor of the mighty federal
agencies whose dams on the Columbia River have brought the river's legendary salmon runs
to the brink of extinction.
In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to strike down a
protection plan for Columbia River salmon drawn up by the Northwest Power Planning
Council, an interstate agency whose mandate is to protect the river's salmon populations.
In doing so, the court agreed with environmentalists that the planning council's salmon
recovery plan was illegal because it had ignored both the scientists at state and federal
fisheries agencies and the Columbia's indigenous peoples. The planning council should
defer to the "best available scientific knowledge" of the region's fish
agencies and tribes, the court said, to decide what is best for the fish.
The unanimous decision has opened a window of opportunity for activists to change the
fate of the Columbia River's wild salmon.
The Sierra Club's two-year-old Pacific Northwest Wild Salmon Campaign has organized
activists into salmon action committees in four centers. When hearings on amending the
planning council's plan were held throughout the region during October and November, Club
activists turned out in force to ensure that the opening provided by the court decision
was not squandered. A new salmon plan is expected to be released in mid-December.
The Sierra Club has also been actively canvassing door-to-door throughout the region.
The popularity of the salmon issue has boosted chapter memberships and galvanized support
for changes in the way dams are operated.
"After 15 years of basically studying the salmon to death, the dam operators
are finally being forced to listen to the people who know how to save the salmon,"
said Jim Baker, director of the Club's Wild Salmon Campaign.
1994 was the worst year ever for runs of Columbia and Snake river salmon: only one
adult sockeye returned to the Snake River basin and chinook salmon numbers dropped to a
few hundred. Both the Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon have been listed as
endangered species since 1990.
The salmon did not reach the precipice of extinction overnight. Before the era of giant
dam-building began on the Columbia in the 1930s, an estimated 16 million salmon annually
entered the river and its major tributary, the Snake River, headed for spawning grounds as
far upstream as British Columbia and central Idaho.
Beginning with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1941, salmon have faced a
daunting number of hurdles along the river. The salmon's much-vaunted ability to swim more
than 1,000 miles upstream, climbing thousands of feet in the process, is no match for the
giant hydroelectric dams.
In the past, the federal government relied on fish hatcheries to replace the stocks of
wild salmon. But the hatchery fish are genetically inferior to wild salmon, scientists
say, and they have tainted the larger gene pool by mixing with the wild salmon.
Even with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on fish hatcheries, the overall numbers
of salmon has declined steeply. Today, about 2 million salmon travel the Columbia, of
which only 300,000 are believed to be wild salmon.
The Northwest Power Planning Council was created in 1980 with twin mandates to provide
energy at the least cost and ensure that hydropower doesn't wipe out the salmon. The
council's members are appointed by the governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Ironically, the plight of the salmon has worsened as a direct result of the
"rescue" efforts carried out since the planning council came into being. The
Bonneville Power Administration -- the federal agency which markets the dams' hydropower
-- and the Army Corps of Engineers, loathe to cut into the power-generating capacity of
the dams, have opted for outlandish, and ultimately disastrous, alternatives.
The worst of these by far is the practice of salmon barging and trucking. Salmon
barging involves trapping juvenile salmon in the reservoirs above dams and then dumping
them in barges and tanker trucks for transportation around the dams.
Throwing the salmon together for extended periods of time spreads disease, biologists
say. The interruption of the salmon's migration has also affected the crucial
"imprinting" -- or mapping -- process that allows the fish to retrace its
journey years later when it returns to spawn. State and federal fish agencies agree that
increasing water flows through the dams will stop the salmon's slide toward extinction. To
do this, the operators would have to:
- Unleash timely water spills that would safely send small salmon accumulating in the
waters above the dam over the spillways, instead of through the deadly turbines or
- Increase water flows to flush salmon through the dams during spring and summer. Juvenile
fish must make the journey to the ocean in about 15 days, but are often fatally delayed by
the slow-moving water behind the dams and the reduced stream flows between the dams.
- Draw down dam reservoirs on the Snake River every spring to imitate the natural flow of
the river during spring runoff.
Opposition to these measures has hinged on the issue of cost. A majority of Washington
voters, at least, have indicated in a recent poll that they would be willing to shoulder
the extra cost of higher electric bills or taxes to help restore imperiled salmon runs.
Environmentalists argue that the measures could be undertaken with only a modest impact
on consumers' electric bills. Analyses based on the calculations of the Army Corps of
Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration indicate that even the most extreme
modification of the hydropower system will still leave the Northwest with the cheapest
electricity in the nation.
What you can do: Members of the Northwest Power Planning Council are
appointed by the region's governors. Write the governors of the four Northwestern states,
urging them to push for the changes to the dams' operation that can reverse the salmon's
Gov. Mike Lowry, Legislative Bldg., Olympia, WA 98504
Gov. John Kitzhaber, State Capitol, Salem, OR 97310
Gov. Phil Batt, State Capitol, Boise, ID 83720
Gov. Marc Racicot, State Capitol, Helena, MT 59620
For more information: Contact Jim Baker, director of the Sierra Club's
Pacific Northwest Wild Salmon Project at (509) 332-5173.
SOURCE: NEIL HAMILTON, THE PLANET, DEC/JAN 95
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