The courts ordered a new salmon plan—now it’s time for
the Bush administration to deliver.
By Brian Vanneman
"Salmon belong in rivers, not on highways!" says Chase
Davis. For Davis,
a Sierra Club Northwest representative, the irony couldn’t be more
obvious, or outrageous.
Under the current Federal Northwest Salmon Recovery Plan—theoretically
devised to sustain and restore wild Northwest salmon populations—the
Army Corps of Engineers traps hundreds of thousands of young fish in the
River during their migration from the river’s headwaters to the Pacific
Ocean. These fish are dumped into 18-wheelers, hauled hundreds of miles
west on I-84, and shot out of a pipe into the Columbia River Estuary, just
The fish emerge disoriented, and sometimes injured and diseased. The biological
processes that transform them from a fresh to salt-water fish are disrupted.
And predators wait at the discharge point for a reliable meal.
Salmon trucking—including the maze of screens, pipes, conduits, sorters,
and shunts needed for capture and transport, and the manpower to operate it all—is
also extremely expensive. "We’ve spent literally billions in taxpayer
and utility ratepayer money with very, very little to show for it," says
This procedure is just one aspect of an obstacle course created by hydroelectric
dams that has decimated the Northwest’s salmon runs. Since the salmon
trucking operation began in 1978, it has never returned the federally-mandated
return rate for adult salmon. In other words, more than 98 percent of salmon
were unable to complete their lifecycle from spawning grounds to the ocean
and back again.
The dams themselves have been just the insurmountable obstacle to salmon
migration that one would expect. Two hundred years ago, when Lewis and
the Northwest, up to 16 million wild salmon filled the Snake and Columbia
rivers every year. Today, 12 species of Columbia and Snake River salmon
trout are listed as endangered and threatened—on the brink of extinction.
In the 30 years since the completion of the four dams on the lower Snake,
Snake River salmon populations have plummetted 90 percent.
Because of the cost and futility of the current system, the Sierra Club
is demanding that the government’s revised Federal Salmon Plan, due
to be released this June, include the removal of the four dams on the lower
Unfortunately the Bush administration has taken repeated steps to severely weaken
the salmon plan. And without an outpouring of public opinion, it is unlikely
that this version of the plan will call for the removal of the dams or other
measures that could help restore the salmon population.
In May 2003, federal Judge James Redden reviewed the plan, found it illegal,
and ordered the Bush administration to revise and improve it by June 2004.
Leaving the current plan in place, he ruled, would mean the extinction
of many of the
river’s salmon stocks by about 2020. The administration allowed water temperatures
at the lower Snake’s four dams to rise above permitted levels for 67 consecutive
days in 2003, creating an extended period of lethal conditions for the big fish.
Then, in December, the Bonneville Power Administration—the federal Department
of Energy’s main arm in the Pacific Northwest—announced its intention
to eliminate "summer spill," a practice that allows some water, and
migrating salmon, to flow over the rims of dams. While taking free-fall is traumatic
for migrating fish, summer spill is essential as long as dams block the Snake
River. Summer spill temporarily reduces energy production, as not all water can
be run through the dams’ turbines. But the administration has consistently
managed the Snake and Columbia Rivers for maximum energy output. Since
2001, the Bush administration has also allowed more mining and logging
in the area,
cut funding for various salmon recovery measures, and suppressed scientific
studies that counter its claims.
In a region that has long relied on clean hydroelectric power, advocating
the removal of four dams might be expected to run up against a concrete
says Sierra Club member Kell McAboy, keeping salmon wild and in their native
rivers is an issue that a wide range of Northwest residents connect with. "It’s
definitely got some conservative Republican support," she says. When she
spoke at a pro-salmon event recently, one attendee turned in a postcard that
read, "I’m a Bush supporter. This is an important issue that
The dams on the Snake are just four of the more than 200 major dams located
in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike Grand Coulee and other dams, they do not
protect downstream communities from floods, and provide very little crop
They do produce energy—but only between 2 and 4 percent of the region’s
"Salmon find their way from the ocean back to the very spot in the stream
they were born," says Davis. "In my mind it makes them one of
the most incredible species on the planet."
Let the Bush administration know that the country deserves a Federal Salmon
Plan that is scientifically sound, economically responsible, and ensures
the big fish’s
survival. That plan should include the removal of the four dams on the
lower Snake River.
Put your comments in the public record by writing to:
Bush and NOAA Fisheries; Salmon Plan Rewrite; c/o Sierra Club;2950 SE
Stark, Suite 110;Portland, OR 97214. Educate yourself and others at sierraclub.org/lewisandclark/alerts/salmon.asp.
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