Under the best of circumstances, the life of a Pacific Northwest salmon is no picnic. A trip down the Columbia and Snake rivers to the ocean for juvenile salmon is often fraught with obstacles, be they the dams that loom into view periodically along the journey, or being scooped up by enormous, unfamiliar barges to bypass the dams. And those fish that do successfully complete the journey and make it to the Pacific can look forward to the entire trip in reverse in three to five more years, when they head back upstream to spawn.
Overfishing, release of large numbers of hatchery fish and rapid development have placed 15 runs of salmon across 75 percent of Washington state on federal lists of threatened or endangered species, according to information provided by the Governor's Salmon Recovery Office.
But this year, the outlook for salmon is especially bleak.
A record low snowpack in the Columbia River Basin has left water supplies in the region at their lowest level in years. And the competing demands that the generation of hydroelectric power places on the water supply may result in the worst year ever to be a salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
"We're calling it a salmon massacre," says Kell McAboy, Eastern Washington director for Save Our Wild Salmon, a group that focuses its effort on persuading those in power to consider breaching local dams, to free waterways for the salmon's passage.
Water, and plenty of it, is crucial for salmon -- the cooler the temperatures of the river, and the higher the water levels, the smoother the journey of the fish. Water is kept in reserve at reservoirs across the region to be released at the moments when it can help a salmon the most, by cooling sun-baked rivers, or raising water levels.
But so, too, is water a precious commodity in the world of power production, especially for a region that has long been addicted to cheap hydroelectric power and doesn't want to be weaned away from it. That's true despite endorsements from Gov. Gary Locke, who in a January address advocated increased use of wind and solar power, and called for residents to make more concerted efforts at conservation in their own homes and businesses. And to complicate matters even more, relatively high snowpack over the last few years has slowed interest in searching for alternative power sources.
And as summer approaches, there's no relief in sight for the opposing tugs on the low water supply from salmon on the one side and power production on the other. In fact, the summer heat only makes things worse: faced with the demand of conserving water for fish, or using it to create electricity to sell to air-conditioner dependent markets like California, the region's power wholesaler, the Bonneville Power Administration, might be under political and financial pressure to choose to market as many spare kilowatts as possible. In fact, Columbia Basin reservoirs are low now because the region was forced by the federal government to draw them down to increase power production to help California as it struggled through a winter marked by blackouts and out-of-control energy prices.
All winter long, hydrologists, fishery biologists and salmon watchers crossed their fingers and prayed for more snow, to create runoff from the mountains into the reservoirs below. Now, as the calendar flips into March, spring is nearly sprung, and hope is just about running out.
"It is pretty much out of the question that we could even get back to normal for the snowpack this season," says Charles Ross, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Spokane.
At Lake Roosevelt at Grand Coulee Dam, one of the region's largest generators of hydroelectric power, surface elevations are well below normal, says Craig Sprankle, public affairs manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the dam.
Already, warnings about the lowered water supply have begun to sink in.
In Idaho, officials have begun meeting with farmers who depend on irrigation from the rivers for their crops, to offer financial incentives if farmers will agree to shut down their pumps, says Jim Kempton, a Boise-based member of the Northwest Power Planning Council.
And recreational fisherman who trek to Lake Roosevelt are likely in for a less than stellar year, says John Whelan, Regional Fish Program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Historically, the closest comparison to this year is 1977, another extraordinarily dry year, which later proved to have devastating effects on that year's salmon stock. But damage today could be even more severe, experts say, because there is a far greater demand for power in 2001 than there was in 1977.
But the worst effects of this year probably won't be known until 2004 or so, when the first salmon from this year's juvenile stock head back upstream to spawn. Chances are that in the face of this year's low water supply, a good number of the fish that would be returning to spawn in 2004 will already be long dead.