The Columbia River was once the largest salmon producing river system in the world. Prior to the dams, the Columbia produced escapements of between 10 and 16 million adults annually. Today, of course, the Columbia produces less than 2.5 million adult fish, more than 90% hatchery fish. Wild chinook in the river are down to less than 2% of their historic numbers. Snake River Sockeye, Snake River fall, Snake River spring/summer chinook and now Upper Columbia steelhead are so near extinction that they are now listed under the ESA. Wild coho runs, once numbering an estimated 1.2 million, are now officially extinct throughout the basin.
Columbia River chinook and Sockeye are north migrators. Under the Pacific Salmon Treaty (PST) the Columbia is supposed to be producing many of the replacement fish to be caught in Canadian waters to make up for Canadian-origin fish harvested in Alaska. As the dams strangled the Columbia runs over the years, more and more inequity developed between Canadian and Alaskan harvests. The replacement fish from the Columbia were simply not there. Though not the only factor, salmon's collapse in the Columbia has certainly been a major factor in triggering an on-going fish war with Canada and the collapse of the Treaty.
A recently published study by the Institute for Fisheries Resources documented what these losses have meat to salmon fishermen -- and the numbers are staggering. Hydropower and dam mismanagement in the Columbia has cost the region's fishery economy as much as 25,000 family wage jobs, and $500 million/year for each and every year these declines are allowed to continue.
Fishermen are engaged in an all out war to decide the future of the Columbia and restore some of this fishing economy. Here is the shape of the current battle lines and what you can do to assist in the Columbia River restoration that is so long overdue.
Wild fish in the Columbia are forced to run the gauntlet of 27 huge dams in the Columbia and Snake River mainstems. Some were actually designed so they kill fish. Hell's Canyon, Grand Coulee, Mayfield Dam (on the Cowlitz), Round Butte Dam (on the Decshutes), Dworshak Dam (on the Clearwater tributary to the Snake) and many others were built without any fish passage at all, up or downstream. These dams are the end of the line for salmon, and together they have already extinguished salmon in more than one-third of their historic range in the basin.
In addition there are more than 2,900 other smaller dams scattered throughout the basin, many of which are known fish killers -- and only 4% of which generate any electrical power at all. Though many of these small dams are obsolete, they are all significant as salmon killers. While the salmon destroying lower Snake River dams are by far the worst offenders, almost any dam will take a 'bite' out of the salmon long before it ever sees the ocean or is available to anglers. However, consistently the forces defending the dams (and the current status quo) have pointed to fishermen as 'the problem,' forever claiming that it is overfishing (and not dams) that are the cause of extinction.
In fact, compared to the tens of millions of fish destroyed by the dams, fishing impacts are laughably small. The Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife officially estimates that all Tribal, commercial and recreational fishing combined accounts for less than 5% of all human-caused immediate salmon mortality within the Columbia River Basin, and that roughly 90% of the remaining mortality is caused by the dams by killing baby salmon migrating downstream or as returning adults. Thus even a total fisheries closure throughout the Pacific would mean less than a 5% increase in Columbia fish -- not much result at great cost, and soon overwhelmed by losses at the dams.
However, in response to lawsuits in which the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen (PCFFA) is a plaintiff, and in response to increasing political pressure, both the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies are having to take a serious look at dam removal as an option -- particularly the four huge federal dams on the lower Snake River (Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor). However, there is a huge and well funded campaign by upper river interests to vilify those who advocate dam removal.
What people forget, however, is that these dams were never intended to be a permanent fixture in the first place. All were designed for a specific lifespan. Many are now nearing their intended retirement age. The facts simply show that the four lower Snake River dams are good candidates for early retirement.
Dams are built to provide four benefits: (1) hydropower; (2) flood control; (3) irrigation water, and; (4) river navigation for commerce. We know the four lower Snake River federal dams kill a disproportionate number of fish. How do they stack up in providing social benefits?
(1) Hydropower -- Surprise! These four dams combined provide only about 4.13% of the region's total hydropower supply. Their retirement would thus make very little difference to BPA or to electricity rates. The Northwest Power Planning Council has in fact already concluded that BPA could economically survive if these dams were retired.
(2) Flood Control -- Surprise again! None of these dams provide any flood control benefits. Human safety, therefore, is simply not going to be an issue if these dams are retired.
(3) Irrigation -- Of the four, only Ice Harbor supplies irrigation water for farming, for a mere 36,000 acres of land (about 7.5 square miles, an area much smaller than Portland). In fact this same water could be supplied for a fraction of the cost of the dam by modern pumps.
(4) Navigation -- These four dams do provide a significant stretch of navigable water from Lewiston, ID, mostly for grain transport. But this transport is heavily subsidized by taxpayers -- and its cost to taxpayers is actually far more than its net economic benefit. Transport by road and rail would only be slightly more expensive. Right now BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers spend roughly $150 million/year maintaining these dams and on boondoggle programs to barge fish around the dams. Retiring these dams eliminates this huge financial burden. If even a fraction of this huge savings went directly to Lewiston, it could more than compensate for any economic losses -- and be a lot cheaper for taxpayers.
Dam removal also has increasingly strong scientific support. A blue ribbon panel of scientists hand selected by the Northwest Power Planning Council recently recommended that the Columbia River be returned more toward a functioning river system. Their report, "Return to the River" (1996) is the strongest condemnation yet of failed programs to barge fish around the dams, and a strong argument for the removal of at least the worst four of the eight salmon killing mainstem federal dams, those in the lower Snake River. Even the recent National Research Council report commissioned by Congress, "Upstream" (1996), noted that in spite of the problems involved, "Where dams are a significant contributor to the decline of salmon runs, dam removal is an obvious rehabilitative alternative."
Idaho's leading newspaper, The Idaho Statesman, estimates that up to $248 million/year could be returned to Idaho's and the region's fishing and tourism economy -- roughly 12,400 family wage jobs -- if these four dams were retired. In addition, the whole region could get out from under Columbia River Endangered Species Act listings and the dislocation and uncertainty such listings create for other industries.
Ultimately the issue is blatantly political, not economic. Washington's Senator Shade Gorton, for instance, recently announced that he will hold removal of the Elwha Dam hostage in return for an iron clad guarantee that there will be no dams ever removed in the Columbia without specific Congressional approval, in spite of the mounting evidence that this may be the most sensible course of action.
The two Elwha dams have no fish passage. Their removal would restore a salmon run once numbered about 250,000, and has already been authorized by Congress. Funding, however, has been singlehandedly blocked by Gorton, who is the Chair of the powerful Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. In holding the Elwha hostage, Gorton once again has tried to pit fishermen against fishermen on these issues, sacrificing the Elwha dams for control over the issue in the Columbia.
On September 15th, Senator Gorton stated in Senate testimony: "Those who want to make a habit of dam removal should understand this: I will never support their proposals to remove Snake or Columbia River dams. Never."
Not surprisingly, much of Senator Gorton's campaign funding and political support comes from these same upper river users he is trying to protect -- heavily subsidized aluminum companies, barging interests, multinational timber companies and others.
Another scandal in the Columbia is the way fish are charged for the water they use in getting through the river. One often sees figures like $3 billion dollars touted as the costs to date for salmon restoration in the Columbia. However, these 'costs' are largely bogus. Through accounting tricks they also include BPA's assessment for 'lost revenues.' The theory behind this cost, always charged against salmon restoration, is that any water lost' in flushing outmigrating smolts through dam spillways means less water available to go through the turbines, and therefore less electricity available for sale. In effect, BPA assumes that literally every drop of water in the whole river belongs to them -- and any water released has to be charged against the fish program.
Never mind that no other water user (such as the grain bargers) is charged for water lost in the locks, and never mind that the many massive irrigation water withdrawals are not charged against farmers. No, only the fish must pay for the water they dare use in navigating what was once their own river, but which (to their accountants at least) now belongs entirely to the Bonneville Power Administration. There is an ongoing effort to change this, and to assess the true costs more equitably.
Back as early as the 1930's, when the first of many dams went into the Columbia, fishermen were solemnly promised that the salmon would not be affected. When that lie was exposed, fishermen angrily demanded compensation for the fish being destroyed, and were then solemnly promised that any losses would be made up and mitigated by hatcheries. This promise was put into law by the Mitchell Act.
Now that promise is being breached by constant whittling away at the funding base of the existing Mitchell Act hatcheries. Last year in Oregon alone, federal funding losses forced two major hatcheries to close, reduced production by 21 million smolts, and forced the premature release to their deaths of 8 million more. These funding slashes are, in effect, the unilateral violation of commercial fishermen's own treaty' with the U.S. Government that fishermen would be held harmless in the face of the destruction of their livelihoods by the dams.
Also at risk in the annual budget fight once again are funds for fish screens, mass marking programs, and virtually all the funds necessary to retrofit the existing dams to increase smolt survival for outmigration as well as to upgrade fish ladders to modern technology. Additionally, vitally important salmon research projects are also being defunded.
There is no question many Mitchell Act hatcheries need to be upgraded and reorganized so that genetic conservation is their highest priority. However, even these reforms can go forward without federal funding.
The Clinton Administration has pledged to bring more federal money to cash strapped state river cleanup efforts through its new "American Heritage Rivers" designation program. This is a non-regulatory program which will not affect private property or water rights in any way, but will bring in much needed federal cleanup funds to augment depleted state coffers and provide states with federal agency expertise. It is broadly supported.
Nevertheless, Idaho's Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth -- ever the champion of the rights of Idaho farmers to confiscate Snake River water at the expense of salmon -- anticipating that some or all of the Columbia River Basin will be nominated as an "American Heritage River," has introduced a bill to totally eliminate the program nationwide (H.R. 1842). As Chair of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health of the House Resources Committee, she held a hearing on the program on September 24th in an effort to gut the program -- or at a minimum, to scare the Administration away from designating any part of the Snake River in Idaho for this program, so that there are no additional efforts for salmon restoration or dam removal in her state.
These above are only some of the fights going on right now to determine the future of the Columbia. PCFFA and several of its member organizations are deeply involved in effort (including litigation) to once again make the Columbia run like a river -- instead of the series of stagnant warm water lakes that it has become. In this we follow in a long and glorious political tradition within our industry in fighting the installation and operation of dams that blatantly destroy the salmon resource upon which so much of our industry in the lower 48 is based.
These efforts deserve your support. Without production from the Columbia, there will be no end to the fish wars with Canada, all fishing opportunities coastwide will continue to be severely constrained, and the regional fishing economy will continue to lose almost $500 million/ year for each and every year agency mismanagement in the Columbia is allowed to continue -- the equivalent of 25,000 family wage jobs.
Write your Member of Congress telling them how important the Columbia River is to our industry, and urge them to do all they can to protect and restore salmon throughout the Columbia Basin. Every letter helps.
For related articles and additional information see:
"Ending the Era of Big Dams: Why Some Dams Must Go" (Fishermen's News -- August, 1999)
"Saving Dams by Killing Fish: Congressmen Battling to Save Killer Dams" (Fishermen's News -- May, 1998).
PCFFA Web page on Dams and Decommissioning.
PCFFA is the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishermen. PCFFA's Southwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370 and by phone to (415)561-5080. PCFFA's Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370 and by phone to (541)689-2000. PCFFA's Internet Home Page is at <http://www.pcffa.org> or PCFFA can be reached by email at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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