Salmon-barging experiment is promising

Robert Stokes
Special to The Spokesman-Review

June 12, 2004

Yakima, WA - Big changes often begin small. Hopefully, two recently announced policies signal a strategy change for Columbia River salmon recovery. Last month, NOAA-Fisheries decided to count genetically acceptable hatchery fish in calculations required by the Endangered Species Act. This week, the Bonneville Power Administration announced another potentially cost-reducing measure, an experimental reduction in water spilled over dams to flush juvenile salmon to sea.

Except for very good water years, virtually all water spilled to benefit salmon could be put to other beneficial uses, notably irrigation and power production. Spilling water for salmon costs the federal government (BPA and Treasury) hundreds of million of dollars annually in lost power revenue, sums that often approach or exceed the cost of all other Columbia River salmon conservation programs. Finding less expensive measures is an obvious priority.

Evolving technology is providing opportunities for such savings. Notable among those opportunities is the practice of collecting juvenile salmon above dams and transporting them to the ocean by barge. It has long been known that virtually all juvenile salmon survive the downriver barge trip. Thanks to tagging studies of most species we can now measure the number of barged fish that return to spawn. Fall chinook have not been studied long enough to quantify survival, but there is no reason to believe their survival rate is dramatically different.

Over their entire life cycle, barged fish sometimes survive better than in-river migrants, sometimes worse. They always survive in sufficient numbers to make barge transportation an attractive alternative (considering both biology and economics) to flushing salmon over dams and through reservoirs with water that could otherwise produce power or irrigate crops.

This year's experiment is modest, reducing July and August spill by 39 percent. Those months were chosen because most juvenile salmon have already moved downstream of dams and reservoirs. (For more on the program online, go to implementation.shtml.)

Public comments vary predictably. Resource users like the Washington Grange are enthusiastic. Regional governors and members of Congress are cautiously supportive. Fisheries agencies are critical.

The environmentalist reaction is noteworthy. The principal spokesman for national environmentalists on Columbia River salmon is Save our Wild Salmon, a coalition whose principal members are such major environmental groups as the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and American Rivers. Review of the SOWS political and public relations campaign leaves no doubt its primary goal is removing the four lower Snake River dams. One Web address ( even reflects this.

Some SOWS comments on BPA's experiment:

"This proposal [one-time, two-month, 39 percent experimental spill reduction] is . . . evidence . . . there is no federal commitment to recover salmon and steelhead to self-sustaining, harvestable levels."

"(T)he current federal plan will not, and is not intended to, result in meaningful recovery."

"(SOWS recommends) shifting (BPA's) authority over fish and wildlife funding and management decisions (though not its responsibility to fund recovery efforts) to an independent third party."

"(T)he Northwest has an obligation to do its part to mitigate for the harmful effects of the dams' operation, or risk heightening the growing national spotlight on whether BPA and Northwest utilities are the appropriate stewards and beneficiaries of the power system."

Why would an organization devoted to saving wild salmon launch such a ferocious attack on efforts to find less expensive ways of doing so, even threatening interference with the Northwest's longstanding preferential access to Columbia River power? That is the clear meaning of the last passage. Study up and form your own conclusion. Here is mine:

The SOWS constituent groups are the same organizations that regularly sue to force the most stringent application of the Endangered Species Act to Columbia River salmon. In communications outside the Northwest, they make no secret of their hope that such lawsuits will force the Northwest to eventually accept dam removal as the least economically painful way to comply with ESA. That possibility is diminished by research that discovers inexpensive, non-economically disruptive salmon conservation measures (such as barging) that replace expensive, economically disruptive measures (such as spill). Even as their hopes fade, the dam busters' "attack everything else" strategy continues to disrupt constructive salmon-recovery planning.

I don't know anyone in the Northwest who has ever opposed reasonable measures to conserve Columbia and Snake River salmon in sufficient numbers to maintain modest (i.e., current) commercial, tribal and recreational fisheries. There is now also widespread commitment to the newer goals of maintaining biodiversity and preserving established local stocks, or "wild" salmon. Pursued in moderation, those new goals reflect common-sense natural resource management principles. Their acceptance requires no concession to exotic "duty to nature" theories often cited by radical environmentalists.

Draconian measures are the problem. One is removing the Snake River dams at a (capitalized, one-time) regional economic cost of several billion dollars. Another is annually pumping hundreds of millions of dollars worth of potential power revenue and irrigation water over dams, without even considering the growing array of more cost-effective salmon conservation alternatives made possible by fisheries science and technology.

So, three cheers to BPA leaders for supporting research and field testing of those alternatives. Three more to fisheries agencies and others for bringing informed, constructive criticism to the dialogue created by that effort. For the dam busters, enough said already.



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