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It’s A Dam Mess

Before we got here, the Columbia River basin was home to as many as 30 million wild salmon and steelhead. Today, there are about 2.5 million. Two million of those fish are inferior fish raised in hatcheries. In 1961, 200,000 wild salmon and steelhead returned to the Snake River from the ocean to spawn. Between 1965 and 1975, four dams were built on the lower Snake River to allow farmers to move their crops to Pacific ports by barge. The dams provide no flood control, little irrigation and a minimal amount of electricity generation. In 1977, approximately 52,000 salmon and steelhead returned to the Snake River to spawn. 1992, Snake River spring and summer chinook salmon are listed under the Endangered Species Act and federal agencies are charged with instituting measures to save the wild fish of the Snake River.  2009, nothing has changed wild salmon and steelhead runs in the Snake River have declined by nearly 75% since 1962. The lower Snake was named the third most endangered river in the nation this year by American Rivers. They are advocates of dam removal on the Snake River.

This spring, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland will release his ruling on legal challenges to the latest 10-year plan submitted by the federal agencies under the Bush administration to save the wild salmon and steelhead. Two previous plans in 2000 and 2003 were rejected by the same judge. The latest plan is more of the same and Judge Redden has said so. In March, 72 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from 27 states sent a letter to President Obama asking for “serious engagement” by his administration in the salmon recovery process. Denny Rehberg was not among the singnatories, if you can believe that. On Friday, the Obama administration asked Judge Redden for a delay of two months for the government to respond to the plan.

The science is clear. The most viable option to save the endangered fish involves removing the four dams on the lower Snake River. That option has, thus far, not been a politically viable alternative, but that may be changing. Salmon Salvation, in the May 4 issue of High Country News outlines some of the recent history and controversy of the fight to save the endangrered fish. The article is decidely pro-dam-removal, but makes some very relevant points about the manipulation of the process so far by federal agencies charged with implementing the salmon recovery plan. $8 billion dollars have been spent so far on everything from habitat improvement, fish ladders, hatchery improvements to sqawfish bounties. Changes in dam operations that might affect power production have always been conspicuously absent from the planning process. 50 to 80 percent of juvenile fish die each year on their way to the ocean. Millions of dollars have been spent to move smolts down river by subsidized barges and release them below Bonneville dam, this solution however, may kill more smolts than natural migration through the dams. Last year, BPA and other agencies paid four native tribes $900 million for habitat and hatchery projects, the kicker being that the tribes had to give up all opposition to the government salmon plans. The only answer so far that has managed to improve fish returns has been an increase in spring spill over the dams. BPA and the Corps of Engineers opposed the spill due to the loss of power production potential. That solution had to come as a court order from Judge Redden.

The next kicker in the mix is climate change. According to High Country News, “Scientists estimate that global warming will cause the region to loose 40 percent of its wild salmon and steelhead populations over the next 60 years…”  The best answer to this latest problem is again, removal of the Snake River dams. Dam removal would give the fish access to higher elevation, cooler spawning areas less suceptible to warming.

Why should Montana care? We are the spigot that drives the Snake and Columbia rivers. It is our water from federal projects like Hungry Horse and Libby dams that is used to augment flows for salmon recovery, sometimes to the detriment of our own fish populations. We don’t have a lot of time left, after spending $8 billion over the last 30 years, there has been no significant improvement. Judge Redden has warned the feds that there will be serious consequences if wild fish populations do not show some recovery in the next few years. If the current plan fails, he has threatened a “permanent injunction directing Federal Defendants to implement additional spill and flow augmentation measures, to obtain additional water from the upper Snake and Columbia Rivers, or to implement reservoir drawdowns to enhance in-river flows.” That’s Montana water he’s talking about.

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