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The Planet
Saving the Big Fish

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 lower Snake 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 east of Portland.

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 Davis.

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 2 percent 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 Clark entered 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 and steelhead 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 Snake River.

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 wall. But, 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 needs attention."

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 irrigation. They do produce energy—but only between 2 and 4 percent of the region’s consumption.

"Salmon find their way from the ocean back to the very spot in the stream where they were born," says Davis. "In my mind it makes them one of the most incredible species on the planet."

Take Action

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: President Bush and NOAA Fisheries; Salmon Plan Rewrite; c/o Sierra Club;2950 SE Stark, Suite 110;Portland, OR 97214. Educate yourself and others at

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