Breach dams, or it’s game over for salmon

Jim Waddell
Idaho Mountain Express
July 27, 2016

When Judge Michael Simon issued his rejection in May of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s proposal to save Idaho’s salmon and steelhead, I predicted that the Corps of Engineers, NOAA and the Bonneville Power Administration would seek to delay their obligations under the recent decision. Indeed, on July 6, Simon granted the federal agencies a three-year extension to complete the environmental impact statement that he had ordered with such clarity that you would have thought he wanted it done last week.

I am a retired careerist with the Army Corps of Engineers and served as the senior civilian at Walla Walla District from 1999 to 2002. I recommended breaching the dams in 2000, based on an exhaustive multi-year $33 million study of the best way to solve the salmon crisis on the lower Snake River. I hold a unique set of experiences that allow me to conclude that the corps’ leadership in the Pacific Northwest has never had, nor currently has, any intention of complying with the court’s decision. In fact, the federal agencies’ track record of lack of compliance with court directives over the past 20 years of this long-running litigation shows that the court’s decision likely is not going to save these salmon runs.

Most people are unaware of how close to extinction the wild salmon stocks are, since the Northwest regional offices of the corps, BPA and NOAA Fisheries Service have been making claims of “record runs.” They do this by shifting the baselines that create a new “normal.” For example, the runs were terrible in the 1990s, so the federal agencies often used that period for comparison to current runs. The agencies count hatchery fish in the returns. Hatchery fish are 85 percent of the total run, which is not what the taxpayers are spending billions of dollars trying to recover. By disingenuously claiming record salmon runs for the last several years, the federal agencies then can argue that their massive investments are paying off. The “record” salmon runs have far more to do with research projects’ (that have now ended) inflating runs, favorable ocean conditions over the past 15 years (that have now ended) and the fact that ever more hatchery fish are dumped into the Snake and Salmon rivers, even though their survival rates are lower than wild stocks.

The best and only practical solution to lower Snake River salmon extinction is breaching the dams via channel bypass (around the concrete structures). This was set forth as a reasonable alternative in the 2002 EIS on the Snake River, and is so far the only reasonable alternative that has not been implemented. This EIS is the working EIS for the Snake River dams currently.

So, the real issue is that unless someone, whether the current president, Congress or the Army Corps of Engineers, gets breaching started this year, it is most likely game over for the wild salmon, given the biological urgency and the political unlikelihood of the next president’s doing anything for several years.

To learn more, attend the presentation titled “Salmon, Steelhead, Taxes & Dams” at The Community Campus in Hailey on Aug. 1 at 6:15 p.m.