The Wrong Way to Restore Salmon - Few Results at $400 per fish

By Clay J. Landry
The Center for Free Market Environmentalism

What is the value of a salmon? If you shop at Seattle's Pike Place Market, a freshly caught salmon might be worth $98 (that is, about $6.50 a pound). If you are a fly fisherman, the sockeye you catch might cost between $25 and $75- depending on how much you spent for your gear or a guide. But these figures pale in comparison with the amount of money that the federal government pays in its efforts to keep salmon flowing through the tributaries of the Columbia and Snake River basins in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. A conservative estimate is that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) alone is spending $400 per fish.

And there is little to show for this infusion of cash. Most of the money goes toward construction-oriented projects rather than the one thing that experts recognize is imperative for salmon protection-moving more water through the river system. Dam reservoirs "slow water flows . . . which may result in increased mortality, " wrote the General Accounting Office (GAO) recently. "An abundant snow pack aids juvenile passage to the ocean by increasing water flows" (GAO 2002, 8). Low flows are bad; high flows are good.

The General Accounting Office's 2002 study was one of the first studies to describe federal salmon and steelhead recovery projects and to quantify the amounts of money spent on preserving salmon. The study found "little conclusive evidence to quantify the extent of [the projects'] effects on returning fish populations" (GAO 2002, 3). Indeed, some of the GAO-reported activities don't really qualify as recovery projects. They include "research studies," "monitoring actions," "surveying spawning grounds," and ESA-required consultations" (GAO 2002, 4). Few activities are on-the-ground experiments in recovery management.

The GAO attempted to quantify the costs of recovery. In the five years between 1997 and 2001, federal agencies, including the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, various branches of the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency have spent $968 million of federal money, plus an additional $537 million given by the federal government to States and Native American tribes on salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake rivers (GAO 2002, 3). By this accounting, federal agencies spent $1.505 billion over the five years or about $301 million per year.

My independent effort to quantify the costs of salmon recovery (Landry 2003) suggests that the costs are much higher-approximately $2.879 billion over five years, or $575.7 million per year. The table provides a summary of this federal spending on salmon recovery from 1998 to 2002, as identified by direct communication with departments and agencies heavily involved in salmon recovery. It avoids or at least minimizes double counting by considering various cost reimbursement agreements between agencies. Unlike the GAO report, this study includes the cost of reduced power generation (the amount of hydropower forgone) due to salmon recovery efforts.

Most agencies do a poor job of accounting for salmon recovery expenditures. Thus, the most accurate figures are those of the BPA and the Corps, but they must be carefully tracked. The BPA records expenditures as a salmon recovery-related project when it allocates money to the Corps for cost reimbursement. The Corps records the same money as a salmon-related expenditure when funds are allocated. The end result would be an overstatement of expenditures unless the funds are tracked. In 1998, the BPA (including money it allocated to the Corps) spent $342 million on salmon and steelhead recovery. With 856,000 of these fish entering the mouth of the Columbia River in 1998, the average cost per salmon was $399.14.

And, of course, these figures not only exclude non-BPA expenditures, but they understate expenditures per fish. Some salmon and steelhead can be expected to enter the Columbia River system regardless of BPA's recovery efforts. Ideally, the government's costs should be applied to just those additional fish that the government has been able to protect. No one knows what that would be. But if the BPA were credited for the return of half the fish (a generous assumption), then the cost per fish would double to $800. Based on BPA and Corps expenditures, federal spending is on the rise (from $131 million in 1990 to $342 million in 1998), while fish numbers tend to dwindle. Although numbers fluctuate each year, 1,262,000 salmon and steelhead were counted in 1990; in 1998, the figure was 856,000 (BPA Fish and Wildlife Program 1999; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife 1999).

What undermines salmon recovery efforts is a construction bias. The Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the BPA like to build new, big concrete structures. As reported by the GAO (2002, 20), to "recover" salmon, the Corps busied itself constructing new juvenile bypass systems for the dams, the Bureau of Reclamation constructed new fish screens and fish passage facilities, and the BPA funded the construction of a new fish hatchery by the Yakama Tribe.

Barging, too, has a construction bias-it's a technique that maintains the current level of concrete on the river. Barges are used to transport juvenile fish across reservoirs. When the barges reach a dam, the fish are off-loaded into tanker trucks and transported around the barrier.

What salmon need is water. But of all the actions taken by federal agencies for salmon recovery in the Columbia basin, there is just one example of money spent to directly increase the amount of water in the river. The BPA provided 7.2 million acre-feet of water annually for flow augmentation (GAO 2002, 64). More actions like this are necessary for effective salmon recovery.

The best hope for salmon lies in what are called "non-structural water management strategies." These include reduced conversion of agricultural water, more-efficient management of existing agricultural water facilities, and water marketing, which includes both temporary and permanent voluntary water transfers, usually from agriculture to instream use. With these strategies, no new structures need to be constructed (Diamant and Willey 1995, 21) Indeed, breaching of dams to let more water through should also be considered.

In parts of the region, tensions over agricultural water are so incendiary that making decisions in Washington, D.C., that exclude interested parties could result in vandalism, violence, or sabotage, to say nothing of compliance problems. By implementing a strategy of voluntary water transactions, however, each farmer could decide whether to lease or sell water, and the government would avoid the conflicts that arise when decisions are handed down from above.

In many cases, the market price paid for water left instream is higher than the value added by irrigation water to crop production. In those cases, farmers have an incentive to provide water to the river system. Environmental groups could get in on the action if they wished and buy instream water just as federal agencies are beginning to do in some western states. This is already done in a small way by Environmental Defense and the Oregon and Washington Water Trusts.

A water bank could enhance this trading. The primary role of a water bank is to obtain water from willing sellers and then market it to other water users. It facilitates the transfer of water from low-valued to higher- valued uses by bringing buyers and sellers together and negotiating the legal and regulatory procedures necessary to change the location and/or use of existing water rights.

Saving salmon and steelhead is not an impossible task. But the way the federal government is going about it today is both costly and largely futile.

Bonneville Power Administration Fish and Wildlife Program. 1999. Bonneville Power Administration Fish and Wildlife Budget Tracking Report, End of Year, Fiscal Year 1999. Online:
Diamant, Adam, and Zach Willey. 1995. Water for Salmon: An Economic Analysis of Salmon Recovery Alternatives in the Lower Snake and Columbia Rivers. New York: Environmental Defense Fund.
General Accounting Office. 2002. Columbia River Basin Salmon and Steelhead: Federal Agencies' Recovery Responsibilities, Expenditures and Actions. GAO-02-612. July.
Landry, Clay J. 2003. The High Cost of Salmon Recovery: Are We Getting What We Pay For? Working Paper WP03-02. PERC, Bozeman, MT, April.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 1999. Status Report: Columbia River Fish Runs and Fisheries, 1938-1998. Olympia, WA, November.


Clay J. Landry is the principal of WestWater Research LLC of Laramie,Wyoming, and an adjunct research associate with PERC. Mathew Johnson of WestWater assisted with this article.


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