Next month, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decides whether breaching four Snake River dams is required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If NMFS says yes, dam supporters will take their case to Congress. If the agency says no, breaching proponents will go to court. Either way, the fight will continue after the agency makes its decision.
Opponents of the dams say their continued operation will eliminate native salmon and steelhead from the Snake River. They also say the economic consequences of breaching them will be moderate. Dam supporters claim breaching will severely damage agriculture, shipping and other industries that use the services provided by the dams. They also claim breaching the dams will do little for the salmon that could not be accomplished at lower cost. One hard cost of breaching is the loss of 15 percent of Bonneville's hydroelectric capacity.
To better understand this complex issue, it's helpful to take a few steps back and ask some basic questions:
WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO SAVE?
The dictionary definition of a species is a group of animals that can reproduce themselves. Seen that way, there are six species of salmon that spawn along the Pacific Coast of North America; chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, pink and steelhead. None are in danger of extinction throughout their range. Neither are those spawning in the Columbia River or its tributaries in any danger of being completely eliminated from the Columbia system.
But ESA protects "significant population segments" of a species. To comply with this provision, NMFS divided Columbia River salmon runs into what the agency calls Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs). Since 1991, it has declared all four ESUs in the Snake River to be threatened or endangered; sockeye, spring/summer chinook, fall chinook and steelhead.
NMFS is saying a significant loss of biodiversity would occur if Columbia River sockeye salmon no longer returned to Redfish Lake, Idaho -- even though they continue to spawn in Lake Wenatchee, Wash. Likewise, if fall chinook salmon vanished from the Snake River, although they continue to spawn in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. And so on, for spring/summer chinook and steelhead.
Whatever NMFS decides, politicians and the public will ultimately decide how much biodiversity is worth preserving. Under ESA, a committee of political appointees (popularly known as the God squad) has already made that determination once. They supported building a dam in Tennessee, in spite of its possible impact on a listed species called the snail darter. For the Snake River dams, the God squad may be the U.S. Congress, which must fund any breaching proposal. It's worth noting that the region's Congressional delegation currently does not support the idea of breaching.
For the moment, let's accept the NMFS view that Snake River salmon are significantly different from salmon of the same species found elsewhere in the Columbia system. Let's also accept the "save the species at any cost" philosophy of ESA. This raises the following additional questions.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE THE SNAKE RIVER DAMS, COMPARED TO OTHER THREATS TO THE SALMON?
The other causes of Snake River salmon mortality are ocean conditions, commercial, sport and tribal harvest, and habitat loss. There are also four Columbia River dams through which salmon must pass after leaving the Snake.
COULD WE MAKE DAMS AND SALMON COMPATIBLE?
Longstanding methods of reconciling dams and salmon include transporting (barging) juvenile salmon to the ocean, diverting them around the turbines and modifying turbines to improve the survival of juveniles that inevitably pass through them. A more recent -- and controversial -- practice is diverting water from irrigation and other uses to speed the passage of juvenile salmon through predator infested reservoirs during the time of their migration to the sea.
The sense of urgency created by the ESA listing has spurred research into the effectiveness of these methods and exploration for further improvements. Of particular note are recent NMFS tagging studies that show improving survival rates for juvenile salmon. In some cases, survival after passing through the dams has approached levels found in free flowing rivers.
COULD HATCHERIES HELP PRESERVE ENDANGERED RUNS?
Historically, salmon hatcheries have emphasized low-cost, high-volume production to support commercial and sport harvest. Biodiversity and the preservation of specific population segments were secondary. That is changing rapidly. Here also, the urgency created by the ESA listing has encouraged changes in hatchery priorities and practices to include preservation of native species.
COULD BREACHING HELP THE SALMON IN TIME?
The administrative and political processes required to breach a dam are essentially the same as those required to build one -- it could take years or decades. The actual construction procedure involves digging a ditch through the earthen portion of the dam to restore the natural river flow. The concrete structure would remain, but would be deactivated. BPA estimates the 20-year cost of breaching the dams and replacing their power output at $1.5 billion.
Much of the benefit to salmon would result from restoring the bottom and shoreline characteristics of a free running river. After breaching, it would take many more years for natural stream flow and erosion to restore those conditions.
Don't be fooled by claims that science has already answered these questions. The only thing such assertions can mean is that a majority of scientists and other experts (in and out of government) share the same opinion. Rule one of science is that no answer is ever true or final. Research results are just today's best available answer. Sometimes, as with smoking and cancer, results are dramatic enough to justify reporting them to the public as facts.
The complexities of nature make that kind of certainty unlikely for salmon recovery research. Further, economic interests and ideology divide experts as well as laymen. Environmentalists want to restore free flowing rivers, as well as preserve salmon. This gives them a bias in favor of breaching, regardless of which recovery measure is best for salmon. Users of the services provided by the dams want to keep those services, salmon or no salmon.
Other economic groups hope breaching will head off recovery measures more harmful to their interests. Sport, commercial and tribal salmon harvesters would prefer breaching, rather than further catch restrictions. Some Idaho farmers would also prefer breaching, rather than having their irrigation water used to flush salmon through the reservoirs. Meanwhile, hanging over the entire issue is the fear that if certain runs do go extinct, lawsuits from Native Americans related to fishing rights treaties could cost the federal government many millions. And to complicate things even more, everyone has their own experts, in and out of government.
Somehow, the public must sort out what is more or less true, and more or less important. It will not be easy, but this could be the region's most important environmental/economic decision in decades.
Bob Stokes taught natural resource and marine economics at the University of Washington for 20 years before retiring to Spokane. To learn more, check the website of the Northwest Power Planning Council at www.nwppc.org.