Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

Planet Main
Back Issues
Search for an Article
Free Subscription
In This Section
Table of Contents

The Planet


Environmentalists may have finally found a chink in the armor of the mighty federal agencies whose dams on the Columbia River have brought the river's legendary salmon runs to the brink of extinction.

In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to strike down a protection plan for Columbia River salmon drawn up by the Northwest Power Planning Council, an interstate agency whose mandate is to protect the river's salmon populations.

In doing so, the court agreed with environmentalists that the planning council's salmon recovery plan was illegal because it had ignored both the scientists at state and federal fisheries agencies and the Columbia's indigenous peoples. The planning council should defer to the "best available scientific knowledge" of the region's fish agencies and tribes, the court said, to decide what is best for the fish.

The unanimous decision has opened a window of opportunity for activists to change the fate of the Columbia River's wild salmon.

The Sierra Club's two-year-old Pacific Northwest Wild Salmon Campaign has organized activists into salmon action committees in four centers. When hearings on amending the planning council's plan were held throughout the region during October and November, Club activists turned out in force to ensure that the opening provided by the court decision was not squandered. A new salmon plan is expected to be released in mid-December.

The Sierra Club has also been actively canvassing door-to-door throughout the region. The popularity of the salmon issue has boosted chapter memberships and galvanized support for changes in the way dams are operated.

"After 15 years of basically studying the salmon to death, the dam operators are finally being forced to listen to the people who know how to save the salmon," said Jim Baker, director of the Club's Wild Salmon Campaign.

On the Brink

1994 was the worst year ever for runs of Columbia and Snake river salmon: only one adult sockeye returned to the Snake River basin and chinook salmon numbers dropped to a few hundred. Both the Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon have been listed as endangered species since 1990.

The salmon did not reach the precipice of extinction overnight. Before the era of giant dam-building began on the Columbia in the 1930s, an estimated 16 million salmon annually entered the river and its major tributary, the Snake River, headed for spawning grounds as far upstream as British Columbia and central Idaho.

Beginning with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1941, salmon have faced a daunting number of hurdles along the river. The salmon's much-vaunted ability to swim more than 1,000 miles upstream, climbing thousands of feet in the process, is no match for the giant hydroelectric dams.

In the past, the federal government relied on fish hatcheries to replace the stocks of wild salmon. But the hatchery fish are genetically inferior to wild salmon, scientists say, and they have tainted the larger gene pool by mixing with the wild salmon.

Even with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on fish hatcheries, the overall numbers of salmon has declined steeply. Today, about 2 million salmon travel the Columbia, of which only 300,000 are believed to be wild salmon.

The Northwest Power Planning Council was created in 1980 with twin mandates to provide energy at the least cost and ensure that hydropower doesn't wipe out the salmon. The council's members are appointed by the governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Ironically, the plight of the salmon has worsened as a direct result of the "rescue" efforts carried out since the planning council came into being. The Bonneville Power Administration -- the federal agency which markets the dams' hydropower -- and the Army Corps of Engineers, loathe to cut into the power-generating capacity of the dams, have opted for outlandish, and ultimately disastrous, alternatives.

Fish Out of Water

The worst of these by far is the practice of salmon barging and trucking. Salmon barging involves trapping juvenile salmon in the reservoirs above dams and then dumping them in barges and tanker trucks for transportation around the dams.

Throwing the salmon together for extended periods of time spreads disease, biologists say. The interruption of the salmon's migration has also affected the crucial "imprinting" -- or mapping -- process that allows the fish to retrace its journey years later when it returns to spawn. State and federal fish agencies agree that increasing water flows through the dams will stop the salmon's slide toward extinction. To do this, the operators would have to:

  • Unleash timely water spills that would safely send small salmon accumulating in the waters above the dam over the spillways, instead of through the deadly turbines or mechanical bypasses.
  • Increase water flows to flush salmon through the dams during spring and summer. Juvenile fish must make the journey to the ocean in about 15 days, but are often fatally delayed by the slow-moving water behind the dams and the reduced stream flows between the dams.
  • Draw down dam reservoirs on the Snake River every spring to imitate the natural flow of the river during spring runoff.

Opposition to these measures has hinged on the issue of cost. A majority of Washington voters, at least, have indicated in a recent poll that they would be willing to shoulder the extra cost of higher electric bills or taxes to help restore imperiled salmon runs.

Environmentalists argue that the measures could be undertaken with only a modest impact on consumers' electric bills. Analyses based on the calculations of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration indicate that even the most extreme modification of the hydropower system will still leave the Northwest with the cheapest electricity in the nation.

What you can do: Members of the Northwest Power Planning Council are appointed by the region's governors. Write the governors of the four Northwestern states, urging them to push for the changes to the dams' operation that can reverse the salmon's extinction.

Write to:

Gov. Mike Lowry, Legislative Bldg., Olympia, WA 98504
Gov. John Kitzhaber, State Capitol, Salem, OR  97310 
Gov. Phil Batt, State Capitol,  Boise, ID  83720
Gov. Marc Racicot, State Capitol, Helena, MT  59620

For more information: Contact Jim Baker, director of the Sierra Club's Pacific Northwest Wild Salmon Project at (509) 332-5173.

Up to Top