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Salmon Recovery: Dams Are an Easy Scapegoat

The Seattle Times attached this headline to an opinion piece I wrote in November on salmon restoration efforts in the Northwest – and they got it exactly right.  Fish advocates and commercial fishing groups once again are suing over a federal salmon plan, called a Biological Opinion (BiOp).  The BiOp prescribes how the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers will be operated to minimize impacts on salmon listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and includes a huge suite of actions to further mitigate the dams’ impacts and help the listed stocks.

The litigants, however, have been suing for more than twenty years now and there is no reason to expect them to stop.  At least not unless they are successful in their quest to remove some of the dams that provide nearly 60 percent of the region’s energy and 90 percent of its renewable energy. 

No one disputes that the dams have impacts on listed salmon and those impacts must be addressed. In the mid-1990’s U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh, presiding at that time in litigation over federal hydro operations, said, "the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul.”

Hit the fast forward button and you will see how much has been accomplished since then, particularly in this decade. Consider these facts:
  • The physical structure of the dams have changed significantly to benefit salmon, with billions of dollars spent to install fish slides and turbine-bypass systems that move young salmon down river faster and more safely to the ocean;
  • A billion-dollar habitat restoration program, the largest in the world, is moving forward in major river tributaries, creating safe nurseries for baby salmon and prime spawning areas for returning adults;
  • Operation of the hydro system has changed dramatically, with up to 40 percent of the Columbia and Snake Rivers now being spilled through the dams to benefit young salmon instead of generating clean energy;
  • Substantial efforts are underway to control predators, including sea lions, cormorants and terns that are consuming millions of young and adult salmon.
Now, consider these results:
  • Young salmon are surviving at the dams at levels exceeding 93 and 96 percent depending on the season – a level NOAA Fisheries says is akin to juvenile survival rates in free-flowing rivers with no dams;
  • The last decade has produced great, at times even record-setting salmon returns, thanks to good ocean conditions and restoration efforts.  An overall record of 2.5 million returning adults was set last year, the most since Bonneville Dam was built.
This isn’t nearly the whole story; there are many more successes to celebrate.  On the other hand, do problems still exist?  Of course.  Do dam operations still need to be tested and adjusted? No doubt.   

But the point is, the dams and how they are operated have indeed undergone a massive overhaul. Further changes would come at an extremely high cost with little or no benefit to salmon.  Yet the dams remain an easy scapegoat.  They are the bogeyman that helps raise funds for special interests whose myopic focus on dam removal distracts the public and the courts from areas that deserve more attention, including hatchery practices and harvest. 

Last but certainly not least, the dams are an enormous source of funds for salmon restoration efforts.  Literally everyone in the Northwest pays between 15 to 20 percent or more of their electric bills for salmon and wildlife restoration.

I suspect that Judge Marsh, seeing all this progress, would be pleased that his words were taken to heart and the overhaul he envisioned has come to fruition. Nonetheless, the vast majority of federal and state agencies, tribes and river interests including RiverPartners, must soon trek off to the courtroom again to defend the BiOp—which is clearly working—against this latest round of litigation.

We know from experience not to expect success—or the facts—from standing in the litigants’ way.

Terry Flores is Executive Director of Northwest River Partners, an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and large and small businesses that relies on and promotes the economic and environmental benefits of the Columbia and Snake Rivers as well as fish policies and programs based on sound science.

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