Four obsolete dams are all that stand in the way of salmon surging back to the interior West.
By David James Duncan
Nature, for all its creative genius,
has managed to bequeath North America just one species capable of journeying back and
forth between the high altitude valleys of the continent's interior and the green Pacific
swells a thousand miles away: the wild salmon. From a life spent in the proximity, and
frequent hands-on company of these wonderful creatures, I have gleaned adventure,
livelihood, delectable meals, deep gratitudeand a lifelong heartsickness caused by
the salmon's rapid vanishing.
There are some who feel that our
endangered wild salmon are "just a fish," and a fish of diminishing commercial
value. Why, they ask, must we "waste money" and even threaten certain dams to
prevent their extinction? Our industrialized rivers have changed, they say. Salmon
haven't. Too bad for salmon. I never cease to marvel at this sort of
thinkingcompletely oblivious to the forces that daily sustain our 78-percent-H20,
solar-engined, wind-breathing, protein-needing bodies. Salmon are, among other things, one
of Earth's perfect foodsfor hundreds of interwoven species, not just humans. They
are "just a fish" in the same sense that Earth is just a finite ship sailing a
sea of uninhabitable space. In eradicating a vast watershed's major food species, we're
removing irreplaceable planks from the hull of our ship for all time.
In the Columbia/Snake River system,
four federal dams that provide just 5 percent of the region's electricity have wiped out
90 percent of the inland West's wild salmon in 25 years. I have asked electricity
providers what difference it would make to consumers, in price or in service, to lose the
dams. They answer, "No difference." There are 75,000 dams in the Lower 48. The
removal of four dams would leave us 74,996. And it would leave us the salmon.
The interior West's wild salmon
waken, at birth, to the pebbles and clear flow of a high mountain stream. The tiny fish
bond not to a parent fish, but to the parenting stones and flow of their birth stream. For
a full year, in some cases two, fingerlings cling to this unlikely madonna, imbibing her
unique chemistry, memorizing all they can about her. Then, at the nautically unpromising
length of five inches, they obey their blood and the parent stream's incessant downward
urging and set out on a journey that makes the Odyssey look tame.
All five strains of chinook make the
marathon swim from the inland West's mountains to the Pacific, but it's the way spring and
summer chinook do it that really gets me. Fasting like holy pilgrims, their bodies
quivering like flames, these two-year-old nafs travel the entire distance800
miles or morebackward. As the current sweeps them seaward, tail-first, they gaze
steadfastly upriver toward the mountains, like kindergartners backing ruefully away from
home toward a first day at school. They've got plenty to be rueful about: 99.75 percent of
them won't live to see their birth stream again.
The smolts' migration must be swift,
or they starve. There is also a limited window during which they can make the metabolic
transformation from freshwater to saltwater. In the pre-dam era the Columbia/ Snake's
mighty spring runoff carried smolts up to 900 miles in as little as five days. Now, with a
total of eight dams, the same journey takes six weeks or more.
Gail Ater of Gouge Eye, Idaho, is
one of four intrepid souls who in 1995 swam the astounding sockeye-smolt migration route
from Redfish Lake, 7,000 feet up in the Sawtooth Mountains, down to the first of the four
notorious dams on the lower Snake River. In the unfettered Salmon River, Ater says, the
swimmers were carried an effortless 30 miles a day by "just staying afloat and
watching for rocks." Then they hit the 40-mile slackwater behind Lower Granite Dam.
"You hear the word impoundment differently forever," Ater says, "once
you've approached one by swimming four-hundred-and-fifty miles of free-flowing river. Soon
as we hit slackwater, a ten-day emotional high became the Bataan Death Swim. Headwinds,
three-foot whitecaps, the same boring chunk of basalt in the distance, though you've swum
for hours. Five miles a day was torture. We almost gave up."
Still far from the dam, the swimmers
saw a fleet of boats approaching. It was the Nez Percéthe same tribe that kept the
Lewis and Clark expedition from unraveling 200 years beforecome to honor the group's
gesture. The swimmers found fresh strength, made it to the dam, and were fêted,
feasted, and made honorary members of the tribe.
But at the point where the humans
faltered, the smolts still have seven slackwaters, eight dams, and 400 miles left to
traverse. And in each slackwater they encounter an array of predacious bass, walleyes, and
the other smolt-devouring artists whose populations have exploded thanks to the
slackwaters' elevated temperatures. Lack of current brings migration to a near standstill.
The fasting juveniles waste energy seeking river flow. The John Day slackwater alone is 80
miles long. The desert in summer is a furnace. The same temperatures that give voracity to
warm-water predators are, by July, deadly to smolts. Schools of salmonids can circle
slackwaters for weeks, unable to sense the way to the sea.
When their metabolic-transition
clocks run out of time, they become baitfish. Anglers aren't fools. The bass lure of
choice in all eight impoundments is a four-inch Rapalla the green-backed color of a
bewildered chinook smolt. When they reach the dams, the young salmon that travel deep are
summarily crushed by turbines, 8 to 15 percent at each dam; eight dams in all; end of
story. The smolts that travel shallow are hurtled over spillways, which kill just 2
percent or less per dam, but only if river current is sent over spillways rather than
through turbines. To the region's hydroelectric profiteers, this means that
"their" generators are being "robbed" of kilowatt dollars by juvenile
salmon. Hence the long, bitter fight for the very flow of this riverand the shocking
resentment, among industrial river-users, of five-inch travelers, fasting as they drift,
gazing back toward long-lost, mothering mountains. Only because of the Endangered Species
Act have these embattled innocents begun to encounter spillways and fish bypass systems
instead of killing turbines.
The lucky, starving smolts that
reach saltwater encounter fresh trials, such as a sterile shipping channel where a
food-rich estuary should be, and a manmade island now harboring the world's largest colony
of smolt-eating Caspian terns. But the fish that reach the Pacific, even today, put on
silvery muscle fast, and for the next two to three years travel distances that put every
inlander but circumpolar birds and long-haul truckers to shame. Some Idaho chinook swim
10,000 miles at sea. They've been caught off the coast of Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula,
the Aleutian Islands. Diving so deep at times as to be untraceable, swimming too far too
fast to be followed, ocean salmon maintain the abilityso troubling to those who
would control them completelyto elude the radar of human knowing.
Yet no matter how far they rove or
how big and strong they grow, there comes a day when they hear in their blood the song
that leads them to abandon the sea and seek again their high mountain place of birth. The
journey is always fatal. Every salmonid undertakes it even so. And when they've conquered
the eight-dam gauntlet, parsed the currents, rediscovered the mothering stretch of pebbles
and snowmelt, they begin, despite all they've endured, to make love.
But not to a mate. On the eastern
edge of Idaho last fall, 700 miles from the sea, I watched a single female chinook, with
great, crimson-gilled gasps of effort, turn her ocean-built body into a shovel and dig, in
the unforgiving bone of the continent, a home for offspring she would not live long enough
to see. I watched her lay eggs so tender the touch of a child's fingertip would crush
them; eggs exactly the color of setting suns. I watched the darker, fierce-kyped male ease
in front of those suns without once touching the female, and send milt melting down into
her nest of stones. I watched the paired chinook circle their pebbled redd, tending it,
guarding it. Only incidentally did they touch each other. Because they weren't making love
to one another. They were making love to the very land and water, to broken bits of
mountain and melting snows.
I left them to die, as salmon do,
their clutch of eggs orphaned in a frigid gravel womb. As I write these words, winter has
snapped down hard in the Rockies. Snow is mounting high. But in that ice-covered streambed
nest, which the female covered with protective pebbles with her last few strokes of life,
tiny eyes are even now appearing in her sun-colored eggs.
There is a fire in water. There is
an invisible flame, hidden in water, that creates not heat but life. And in this
bewildering age, no matter how dark or glib some humans work to make it, wild salmon still
climb rivers and mountain ranges in absolute earnest, solely to make contact with that
flame. Words can't reach deep or high enough to embody this wonder. Only wild salmon can
embody it. Each migration, each annual return from the sea, these incomparable creatures
climb our inland mountains and sacrifice their lives, that tiny silver beings may be born
of an impossible watery flame.
These are the "declining
commercial species" that we are eradicating from the West for all time.
The Columbia/Snake system is one of
just three great refugia of Pacific salmon on Earth. Its hundreds of rivers required
millennia to evolve our hardy indigenous salmon and steelhead. These wild strains are the
genetic engine that gives us all salmon, even those raised in netpens and hatcheries.
Dolly the sheep notwithstanding, humans do not know how to create and maintain a viable
race of salmonids. Hatchery fish are, essentially, big batches of identical first cousins
rapidly inbreeding themselves into genetic inferiority and nonexistence. ("Homeless
seagoing spam," salmon bard Tom Jay calls them.) It is our resilient, diverse wild
stocks alone that give artificial stocks a fleeting viability before technological incest
This is why the countless attempts
to "repair" vanished salmon runs with hatchery fish have failed for 40 years.
It's like trying to replace Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven with Yanni, Yanni, and Yanni.
Borrowing eggs from an alien species, dumping them in a river, and expecting the newcomers
to magically pick up survival and migrational instincts acquired over thousands of years
by their extinct wild predecessor is a hopeless industrial dream. To cite one of countless
failures, the vanishing sockeye of Idaho's Redfish Lake were replaced in the 1990s with 3
million Canadian sockeye eggs three years in a row. The number of sockeye from these 9
million eggs that adapted and returned as adults: zero. A dam is not a biological
treasure. A dam is an inanimate, river-altering tool with a life span of about 100 years,
created by humans to serve humans. Most of our 75,000 dams were built before negative
biological, economic, or cultural impacts were considered, and many have done more harm
than good. Learning from our mistakes, we now weigh at least some of the long-term damages
of dams against their benefits.
Historically, Americans have often
been slow to retire dangerous tools, because tool retirement usually comes with a price
tag. We're getting faster, though. Only by retiring tools fiercely defended by
profitmakers have we ceased to be the land of thalidomide infants, asbestos-ceilinged
schoolrooms, DDT trucks dousing residential streets, Dalkon Shield IUDs, and
explosion-prone cars. The time has come for the four lower Snake River dams to join these
other tools in retirement.
The eight federal dams that bar the
journey of the inland West's salmon are not created equal. The four on the Columbia have
brought both benefits and disasters. Among the disasters: the mass extinction of dozens of
salmon runs; the impoverishment of hundreds of local fishing communities and
salmon-dependent Indians; and the 1957 inundation (behind The Dalles Dam) of the lower
Columbia's Celilo Fallsfor ten millennia the greatest tribal gathering place west of
the Mississippi, drawing salmon celebrants and neolithic traders from as far away as
Central America. Among the benefits: hydropower, navigation, flood control, and, thanks to
abundant electricity, the aluminum that became the aircraft that helped win World War
II.The four Columbia dams have been retrofitted to accommodate safer salmon passage; they
now assist, if awkwardly, in flushing migratory smolts to sea. With changes in operations
policy (particularly at John Day) and an unbiased look at the aluminum industry's deadly
waste of power, they could keep salmon mortality at an "acceptable" low rate.
The four dams on the Snake are an
agonizingly different story. Conceived at the paranoid height of the cold war, they were
bitterly opposed even then for the damage they were certain to inflict on the Northwest's
salmon-dependent economy. Among their opponents: President Dwight Eisenhower; the Army
Corps that later built them; the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and game; the
region's 13 Native tribes; the West Coast's multibillion-dollar fishing industry; and the
majority of the region's salmon-loving populace. But cold war politics won out. In 1955,
craving a four-dam hydropower saber to rattle at the Soviets at any cost, Congress
approved the dams. When they came online, wild salmon runs, as predicted, crashed.
Something few people know: The Snake
River dams are of a type known as "run of the river," which offer no
flood-control storage. The Northwest's far right foretells catastrophic floods with the
dams gone. It's a lie. The reservoirs of these dams must be kept within three feet of the
top for the sake of their navigation locks. Two more absurdities: for months at a time
these dams turn only one or two turbines (the Columbia dams, on average, turn ten or
more). Nor do the dams provide significant storage for irrigation. Although water is
pumped from the Ice Harbor Reservoir, if the dam were removed, the farmers could place
their intake pipes in the free-flowing river---a fraction of a day's work!
The truth is that, beyond their
pitifully limited hydroelectric function, the Snake River dams were a pork-barrel present
to the mountain town of Lewiston, Idaho, which hankered to be a seaport450 miles
inland. But the Lewiston "port" is primarily a trucking depot, and receives no
ocean-going vessels. And its barges plow right alongside railroads and highways that until
1975 carried its cargo at no cost to salmon---or to U.S. citizens, who have since pumped
billions into dam and port construction and operations, and $3 billion more into failed
efforts to redress the dams' deadly effects on salmon.
And it's not just the Snake.
Lewiston's "port" also places a hangman's noose around the fish of Oregon's
Imnaha, Grande Ronde, Wenaha, Lostine, Minam, Wallowa, and Powder rivers, Idaho's South
and Main Clearwater, North, South and Middle Salmon, Selway, Rapid, Lochsa, and many more,
strangling the economies of towns throughout the region, along the Columbia, and up and
down the Pacific Coast. In 1993 the sport fishery for just one Snake River
speciesthe summer steelheadgenerated $90 million and created 2,700 jobs, even
with the run in semi-ruins. (The same year the Lewiston port directly employed 22 people.)
The four dams' removal, according to the Army Corps, will create 12,000 new jobs. Economic
studies say dam removal would generate long-term billions. Yet subsidy recipients and
their political supporters have constructed a pro-dam propaganda machine that views any
criticism of this deadly "port" as treason.
The politics of salmon recovery are
as hideous as salmon are beautiful. The dams of the Snake have not just impounded
life-giving current: They've created a quasi-culture of slackwater politicians whose
hysterical rhetoric has instilled vague yet paralyzing fear in the hearts of federal
lawmakers. But what is the substance of these fears? Who are these regional
"leaders" trying to convince us to ignore biological reality and spiritual
integrity? Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) asks how her state's salmon could
possibly be in trouble when she sees canned salmon stacked in her local
supermarketconveniently ignoring that it came from Alaska. Senator Slade Gorton
(R-Wash.) sees in the removal of Snake River dams a new "domino theory" that
will bring down all dams, everywhere, and leave us in a Mad Max-style postindustrial
wasteland ravaged by biblical floods (caused, no less, by the removal of four dams that
offer no flood control). Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) responds to rigorous Army Corps
analyses linking salmon with jobs and prosperity by accusing the Corps of being stoned.
Idaho's ruling Republicans are exploring the possibility of building a 400-mile-long
water-filled pipe down which to flush endangered juvenile salmon from Idaho all the way to
the Columbia estuary, like unwanted turds. The day a slackwater politician comes up with a
cogent, altruistic reason to sacrifice the inland West's salmon to their agendas, I'll eat
my trout flies. All five boxes.
Ian Gill is chair of Ecotrust, an organization that develops intelligent,
sustainable economic opportunities for small communities. Fresh back from Lewiston, Gill
said the visit reminded him of the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, whose crazed hero
stops at nothing to drag a stern-wheeler riverboat over a mountain in Brazil. "There
was a conquistador mentality afoot during the cold war," Gill said. "Here in
Canada they talked of building a canal from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay, of reversing the flow
of a major river, of building thirty-mile bridges from the mainland to Vancouver Island
when ferries served. This fifties engineering mentality explains Lewiston's port, but
doesn't excuse it. Do we live with fifties' acts of idiocy, or do we set to work and undo
So far, we live with, and salmon die
from, the idiocies: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams
came on line in 1962, 1969, 1970, and 1975, respectively. Their legacy so far:
1986: all Idaho, Oregon, and
Washington coho dependent on the Snake River migratory corridor, extinct;
1990 to 1999: 20 sockeye, in total, returned to the same vast system;
1997: all surviving Snake system salmon and steelhead threatened or endangered;
1998: 306 wild chinook returned to the system (down from tens of thousands per run);
1999: Idaho spring/summer chinook, once the largest run of its kind in the world,
down to 2,400 returning adults, leaving many key streams with no spawning for the first
time in history;
2017: extinction of all the inland West's salmon predicted.
The Soviet Union is dissolved. The
cold war is won. Five percent of a region's hydropower is not "strategic." Its
web of life is. Lewiston, Idaho, can ignore its railways and highways and enjoy a piddling
wheat-barging operation---or the nation can continue to have wild Pacific salmon and a
$500-million-a-year sustainable fishing enterprise. We can't have both.
A century ago the U.S. government
defined salmon as a commercial species, thus bequeathing the problems of salmon not to
federal fish people, but to money people: namely, the U.S. Department of Commerce's
National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS (pronounced "nymphs"). This agency
is, so to speak, the mind and the Army Corps the muscle of salmon recovery under the
Endangered Species Act. But in three decades of stewardship, that mind has shown itself to
be as false to salmon as Shakespeare's Iago was to Othello.
In 1993, deep into the dam-caused
extinctions, NMFS scientists proclaimed that the Columbia/Snake hydroelectric system
"poses no jeopardy" to the recovery of Snake River fishan incomprehensible
lie coming from the salmon's scientific defender. Outraged salmon lovers were forced to
take NMFS to court, where Judge Malcolm Marsh, in a landmark decision, found the agency's
science "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered it to rewrite its biological
opinion, this time incorporating the expertise of state and tribal fisheries biologists.
Seemingly chastened, the NMFS/Corps
team commenced the most scientifically rigorous analysis of a fish species and watershed
ever conducted on this planet, accompanied by a federal promise that the study's science,
being the best humanity has, would determine the course of recovery. After four years of
arduous effort, the study concluded that technical fixes would never restore viable runs,
and that existing strategies of river use would lead to certain extirpation of inland
salmon, but that if the Snake River dams were removed our endangered salmon would have an
80 to 100 percent likelihood not just of surviving but of flourishing.
Salmon lovers were ecstatic. After
50 years of federal indecision, it was time to act. What happened instead? The study's
conclusions were squelched, falsified, and politically spun, not just by the far right,
but by the salmon's supposed champion. Suddenly NMFS began to raise "other
threats" known all alongocean conditions, overfishing, habitat
degradationas arguments against dam removal. This is like refusing to remove a tumor
from a man because his arm is broken. It's also sickeningly familiar. Here is a 1965
tobacco industry medical expert: "Research . . . indicates many possible causes of
lung cancer. . . . There is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause
is. . . . More study is needed." And here are NMFS "salmon experts," cited
and paraphrased last October by The New York Times: "The salmon involves our whole
way of doing things. There is no simple, easily defined enemy." "[Salmon] could
be rescued by some means short of dam breaching." "One option would be to
Dangerous and superfluous dams are
being removed all over the United States465 of them as of late 1999, with many more
scheduled to goand when dams go, sea-run fish return. On Butte Creek, a Sacramento
River tributary, dam removal has helped turn a 1987 chinook run of 44 fish into a 1998 run
of 20,000. The pre-dam Snake system produced great salmon and steelhead runs in the 1960s
despite the Columbia dams. The fall chinook of the Hanford Reach of the Columbia are
thriving today, though they traverse the same Columbia dams as the vanishing salmon of
Idaho. The sole difference between prolific life and doom: the four Snake River dams. Yet
NMFS bureaucrats, far from defending salmon, keep using R. J. ReynoldsÐstyle PR to
subvert their own best science and defend the dams. It's as if the Marsh decision and the
comprehensive study never took place.
Iago is a subtle betrayer. Consider
the NMFS/Corps juvenile-salmon transport program. This ostentatious technological
boondoggle purports to "save" migrating smolts from turbines and slackwater by
ceding the river to its industrial abusers, trapping fragile smolts in multimillion-dollar
Inspector Gadget gizmos, handling and tagging them (often fatally) in the name of
research, shooting them through whirligig bypass systems that disorient like Disney rides,
sluicing them into overcrowded trucks and barges, shipping them like coal or plywood for
300 miles, and dumping them---with no notion of what planet they're now onbelow
Bonneville Dam, where a crowd of industry officials and media stand cheering on the bank
while, down in the river, an unphotographable horde of predators awaits a disoriented
smolt feast. The NMFS scientists then solemnly count the dead 2 percent left floating in
their state-of-the-art taxpayer-duping barges, fail to factor in the 40 to 60 percent of
barged smolts that later "mysteriously disappear" and the 99.75 percent that
never return to spawn as adults, and call their transport program "a 98 percent
This is salmon-betraying drivel.
Even Commerce Department biologists know that the only meaningful measure of recovery is
the number of adult salmon that return from the ocean to reproduce in home streams. By
this measure the smolt-transport program is a disaster. The smolt-to-adult return range
needed for salmon recovery is 2 to 6 percent. The average adult return under NMFS is a
dismal 0.25 percent. In the real world, employees with this kind of "success"
rate are fired. In the federal world, Iago just smiles, spins the statistics of failure,
and says, "Let's study it further"and the Clinton administration has so
far supported this anti-scientific subterfuge.
I would remind an author named Al
Gore of his own take on this kind of delay. In Earth in the Balance, protesting the
stubborn denial of global warming, Gore wrote, "It is all too easy to exaggerate the
uncertainty and overstudy the problemand some people do just thatin order to
avoid an uncomfortable conclusion. . . . [A] choice to 'do nothing' in response to
mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate . . . the
catastrophe at hand" (emphasis Gore's). When migratory creatures are denied their
life-giving migration, they are no longer migratory creatures: They are kidnap victims,
held hostage for a ransom of unconscionable dams. The name of the living vessel in which
wild salmon evolved and still thrive is not "fish bypass system,"
"submergible diversionary strobe-light," or "barge." It is River. And
this is the last thing the NMFS/Corps team is willing to give them.