Columbia River Wild Salmon Runs Face Regulatory Hurdles, Political Indifference

Ronald Holden
CONTRIBUTOR
Forbes.com

Think of the Columbia River’s wild salmon run as an inexhaustible Salmon Mine, says Seattle restaurateur and environmentalist Duke Moscrip. He’s written an open letter to President Trump asking for the White House to direct its federal agencies to stop stalling and restore the salmon runs.

It may be a tough sell at a time when the Trump administration seems intent on cutting back its support for public resources, from fish to National Parks.

Here’s a look at the battlefield.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration own and operate 11 massive dams on the Columbia, built over the past 80 years to generate power and provide irrigation water east of the Cascade Mountains. (Another 275 smaller dams on tributaries also provide power and irrigation.) The dams have made life (and sex!) difficult for salmon, especially, because adult salmon return from years at sea to spawn in the streams where they were born. The dams provide fish ladders to avoid blocking the fish by a solid wall of concrete, but even the best mitigation systems have had limited success. Meantime, juvenile salmon don’t take the ladders on their migration downstream; if they can’t use the dam’s spillway, they get sucked through the dam’s power-generating turbines.

The Columbia is the fourth-largest river in North America by volume (after the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the St. Lawrence), and mightiest on the west coast. It drains a watershed the size of France; its salmon run once rivaled that of Alaska’s wild rivers. Today that run is endangered.

We should never assume that things will remain constant. Before the Thames silted up, 300 years ago, 70-lb salmon were common in London. Wild Columbia River salmon, caught with spears and nets by Native Americans at promontories along the river a century ago, are today similarly threatened, according to independent organizations like Long Live the Kings.

So now comes Moscrip, a former stockbroker turned restaurateur, who wants to make sure London’s fate doesn’t befall the salmon of the Columbia River. Moscrip, a former high-school basketball star, was an early investor in Seattle’s original waterfront restaurant, Ray’s Boathouse, at a time, in the mid-70s, that restaurants serving fresh fish were an anomaly; he went on to build a series of seven chowder houses, mostly in choice seafront locations, that specialized in wild and sustainable seafood.

The situation on the Columbia River is perilous: the salmon–which provided a steady diet for Native American tribes for centuries–have fallen victim to a string of mammoth hydroelectric dams. While the dams provided the Northwest with cheap electric power (one tenth what a kilowatt hour costs in, say, New York), and allowed eastern Washington farmers to irrigate arid lands, the fish were not so lucky. Tens of thousands of families moved to cities built along the Columbia, but millions of salmon died off.

One big issue: the dams were controlled by the Corps of Engineers, which back then (and still today) sees its primary role as power generation and flood prevention. The Corps could have allowed for increased water to be spilled during the annual salmon migrations, for example, but declined repeated entreaties to do so.

Over time, too, several of the dams on the Columbia were no longer useful, especially smaller, older dams without adequate fish ladders. The obvious answer (to environmentalists and conservationists at any rate) was be to breach those dams, and that’s where things stand today. All the parties are waiting for a plan, an environmental impact statement that sets out specific actions and holds the various agencies accountable.

A year ago, environmentalists called for breaching four longstanding dams on the Lower Snake River. Doing that, they maintain, would help restore salmon habitat and, in turn, provide more salmon for human consumption as well as for the endangered population of Killer Whales in coastal estuaries that feed on the salmon.

Federal judge Michael H. Simon, who sits in Portland, last year rejected the government’s plan for offsetting the damage that dams in the Columbia River Basin pose to salmon; he ordered the government to come up with a new plan by March, 2018. Judge Simon declined to dictate specific options for the government but he noted that a proper analysis under federal law “may well require consideration of the reasonable alternative of breaching, bypassing, or removing one or more of the four Lower Snake River Dams.”

The Snake River is the Columbia’s largest tributary, and, with the system of locks maintained by the Corps of Engineers, allows ocean-going barges to navigate some 465 miles inland past eight dams as far as Lewiston, Idaho, to load grain. NBC News sent a crew to the oldest of the four dams, Ice Harbor, for a report summarizing the situation.

The hydroelectric dam building boom in the Pacific Northwest in the past century drove dozens of salmon runs to extinction and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars to try to save the fish that remain.

The notion of taking out any one of the dams on the Lower Snake river (let alone all four) would have been mind-boggling a couple of decades ago, but the falling cost of solar and wind power has changed the economics of electric power. So has the concept of locating power-generating turbines on riverbanks rather than across the entire span of the river, along with tubes (rather than fish ladders) to help salmon bypass existing dams.

Moscrip is frustrated by the endless debates, which have been going for decades. He compares exploiting the salmon resource to drilling for gold, but points out that a gold mine only lasts a decade or so whereas a “salmon mine” is sustainable indefinitely.

It can “produce $600 million worth of economic benefit to the country per year and provide 20,000 jobs without any cost to the public,” he wrote in his open letter to President Trump. The resource is endangered, however, and is headed for extinction unless the federal government acts decisively.

So Moscrip spent $4,000 to take out an ad in the Seattle Times calling on the President to take action. (So far, no response.) “It is outrageous what is happening,” Moscrip argues. “If salmon could speak, they would weep and ask why are you driving us to extinction and taking the Killer Whales with us?”

The fate of the remaining Columbia River salmon is complicated by tensions between recreational fishermen, commercial gill-netters, and Native American tribes (whose treaty rights to half the fish was reaffirmed by a federal judge in 1974). As things stand today, most of the Columbia River salmon on the market comes from tribal fishermen.

Unable to source wild Columbia River salmon for his restaurants, Moscrip’s response is for Duke’s to sell wild salmon from Alaska. And it’s not cheap. Without the hidden subsidies of industrial farming that allow McDonald’s to sell burgers for 99 cents, Duke’s has to charge $36 for an 8-ounce filet of wild Alaska salmon, substantially more than other restaurants that serve farmed fish.

Moscrip has invested heavily to promote the singular benefits of “wild” seafood. In addition to his $4,000 Open Letter, he and his executive chef have produced a handsome cookbook titled As Wild As It Gets, and his menus extol the virtues of wild seafood.
The key, says Moscrip, isn’t science but marketing. “Only 2% of the audience will understand the science, but almost everyone can understand the importance of saving the salmon. It’s an emotional connection.”

Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based food writer. His latest book is Forking Seattle.

Hungry and disappearing: Is the orcas’ future already here?

Nov. 14, 2017
Crosscut.com
by Allegra Abramo

Every day this summer, Jeanne Hyde scanned the waters off the west side of San Juan Island, hoping that the killer whales would show up. All night, she streamed the underwater sounds from microphones submerged along the shoreline, waiting for the whales’ distinctive trills, chirps and whistles to wake her up.

Too often, she slept through the night.

“Day after day after day, I’d wake up the next morning and I’d check the recording to make sure I didn’t miss something,” said Hyde, 71, who has watched and listened for the whales every day for 14 years…read more

Letter: A boondoggle of a Bill (LSRD facts)

July 12, 2017

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, U. S. House of Representatives (WA-05)
Jaime Herrera Beutler, U. S. House of Representatives (WA-3)
Dan Newhouse, U.S. House of Representatives (WA-4)
Kurt Schrader, U. S. House of Representatives (OR-05)
Greg Walden, U. S. House of Representatives (OR-2)

Greetings:

You recently sponsored a bill in the U. S. House of Representatives designed to protect the operation of the four lower Snake River (LSR) dams from environmental review and stop implementation of a scientifically-proven means (spill) of aiding threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. Your statements in the press release addressing this bill, posted on McMorris Rodgers’ website, demonstrate either a lack of knowledge about the LSR dams or an attempt to deceive your constituents, colleagues in Congress and all Americans. Here are facts of which you are hopefully aware.

Hydropower: Those who wish to mislead the public frequently combine the power output of the Columbia River with that of the Snake, purposely failing to acknowledge that the LSR dams contribute little to the Northwest’s power supply. These four dams provide less than 4% of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest power grid and only 6.5% of the Northwest’s hydropower. They produce much of their power when demands for electricity and market price are both low.

PNW wind energy capacity is now three times greater than the combined capacity of all 4 LSR dams. The Pacific Northwest enjoys a surplus of energy, at times requiring wind turbines to be shut down and electricity to be exported at a negative price.

Savings in energy costs related to fish mitigation alone justifies breaching the LSR dams.

Navigation: Freight transport on the LSR’s four reservoirs has declined by more than 50% over the past 20 years. Barges no longer carry logs, lumber, paper, pulp, or pulse. Even grain volume, which makes up over 90% of all freight, has declined 45% over the same period.

Every barge of grain that leaves the Port of Lewiston carries a taxpayer subsidy of over $20,000 to pay for channel dredging, navigation operations and maintenance. This figure does not include the many millions of dollars spent every few years on major lock rehabilitation. Commercial navigation on the LSR principally provides government-subsidized transportation of a government-subsidized crop.

Flood Control: The LSR dams are run-of-the-river dams that provide no flood control. Lower Granite dam actually creates flood risk to the principal city on the waterway—Lewiston, Idaho. The arrival at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers of over 2 million cubic yards of sediment each year perpetually adds to that flood risk and creates additional future costs to be borne by federal taxpayers. Flood control as justification for maintaining the LSR dams is a false claim.

Irrigation: Only one reservoir in the LSR dam complex — behind Ice Harbor Dam— provides irrigation for between 13-17 land owners/farms on one-third the acreage the Corps of Engineers projected in claiming benefits for the LSR project. Water would still be available if Ice Harbor were breached, but at a higher (non-subsidized) cost. Irrigation as justification for maintaining the LSR dams is a weak argument that applies to a single dam.

Juvenile Fish Migration: Among the more egregious of the false claims made in the press release addressing the proposed legislation is that of the survival of Snake River juvenile salmon and steelhead through the 8-dam Columbia/Snake River complex. The oft-repeated statement “an average of 97% of young salmon successfully make it past the dams” belies a juvenile fish survival rate through the dams and reservoirs of about 54% for wild Chinook and 45% for wild steelhead. Further losses then occur below Bonneville Dam due to avian predation and delayed mortality caused by the rigors of dam passage. In 2015 the juvenile survival rate Lower Granite to Bonneville for the Snake River’s most endangered fish, Idaho’s sockeye salmon, was 32%. In 2016 this rate declined farther to a mere 12%. The 97% claim is false. Repeating it constitutes political hucksterism.

In 2013, NOAA Fisheries acknowledged that no juvenile fish passage survival improvement had occurred over the previous 13 years—despite the expenditure of over $700 million on just the 4 lower Snake River dams for so-called “fish passage improvements.” Stated NOAA: “Chinook survival through the hydropower system has remained relatively stable since 1999 with the exception of lower estimates in 2001 and 2004.” No significant change has occurred in the past four years. Claiming otherwise is lying.

Adult Salmon Returns: As with hydropower, LSR dam supporters deceive the public by using data for the combined Columbia/Snake system, purposely ignoring the vast differences in fish numbers in these two rivers. As sponsors of the House Bill in question, you likewise employ this deception in claiming the achievement of “record fish returns.”

Historically, the Snake River produced an estimated half or more of all the anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin. However, in 2014 just 14% of the Chinook counted at Bonneville Dam were Snake River fish. For Coho the percentage was 6%, for sockeye it was less than half of one percent. The same pattern held in 2015 at 15%, 3.5%, and 2/10ths of one percent. Claiming that salmon numbers at Bonneville Dam provide meaningful and honest information about fish numbers on the Snake River, let alone about the Snake’s threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, is beyond the pale.

In 2015, 99% of adult Snake River sockeye died before reaching their spawning grounds. The Idaho Fish and Game Department has predicted 2017 and 2018 will see steelhead returns lower than those in the 1980s, with the Clearwater River’s once famous wild B-run steelhead numbers predicted to be a mere 1000 fish in 2017.

The true measure of successful recovery of threatened and endangered fish species is the smolt-to-adult return (SAR) ratio. Mere survival (non-extinction) of wild fish species requires a minimum 1% SAR, while recovery of Snake River salmon and steelhead requires a 2%-6% SAR. From 1993-2013 the SAR for wild Chinook salmon averaged .89%. The return exceeded the minimum 2% SAR needed for recovery during only 2 of those 20 years. Idaho’s Snake River sockeye are on the brink of extinction. No Snake River threatened and endangered salmon or steelhead species is on a path to recovery.

The claim of “record runs of fish” in a bill designed to maintain the status quo on the lower Snake River is deliberate deception.

The High Cost of Failure

Several other statements you have made about the LSR dams fall beyond this communiqué—for example, your twisted claim that science should govern dam operations rather than politics while you undertake to assure that politics continue to defy science. However, one additional topic must be addressed. While I question your claim that “one-third of our electric bills pay for fish passage,” we do know the cost to taxpayers and ratepayers of supporting mostly failing salmon and steelhead recovery in the Snake and Columbia Rivers has topped $15 billion. As noted above, at least $700 million has been spent just on “system improvements” designed to increase the rate of juvenile fish passage on the four LSR dams. However, overall juvenile fish survival rates have not improved over the past 20 years, smolt-to-adult wild fish returns remain below the level needed to avoid species extinction, and no Snake River threatened and endangered species is on a path to recovery. Three federal judges over a twenty-year period have declared plans for the operation of the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers illegal. Despite all of this information, you 5 Northwest members of the U. S. House of Representatives, who claim to be fiscal conservatives, have sponsored a bill to continue pouring more taxpayer and ratepayer money into an atrociously expensive, flawed and failed experiment that is destroying two of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic species —Pacific salmon and Southern Resident Killer Whales— while inflicting economic hardship on small communities from the Pacific Coast to the interior of Idaho.

A boondoggle is defined as “a wasteful or pointless activity that gives the appearance of having value; “ and “a public project of questionable merit that typically involves political patronage and graft.”

The lower Snake River dams meet both definitions. Your referenced House Bill does as well.
Linwood Laughy, Kooskia, Idaho • lochsalaughy@yahoo.com

The ‘prosperity’ from Lower Snake River dams

By Linwood Laughy
Opinion: Moscow / Pullman Daily News
Nov. 7, 2016

In 1973 residents of Idaho’s Clearwater Valley were told their prospects for prosperity rose with each foot of slackwater filling the reservoir behind the Lower Granite Dam. Waterborne commerce would flourish, and Idaho’s only “seaport” would become the economic engine of the Clearwater Valley.

The Idaho Department of Labor generates economic data on Idaho’s six geographic regions. How does north central Idaho, which includes Moscow and Lewiston, compare with the other regions and the state as a whole 1994-2014?

Job growth: The number of jobs across the state during this period grew 39.8 percent. In the southwest region – call it Boise, the growth rate was 50.6 percent; in the northern region or Coeur d’Alene, 44.8 percent. South central or Twin Falls was 39.2 percent; Eastern or Idaho Falls was 37.7 percent. Southeast or Pocatello trailed at 18.8 percent, Job growth in north central Idaho – Lewiston and Moscow – was just 6.1 percent.

Labor force: Idaho’s labor force grew 37.4 percent. Boise edged Idaho Falls 53.4 percent to 49.5 percent. Coeur d’Alene posted growth of 33.3 percent. Pocatello and Twin Falls hovered around 20 percent. Lewiston/Moscow came in a distant last at 1.1 percent.

Private sector employers: Idaho increased by 42.1 percent. Idaho Falls at 58.9 percent topped Boise at 54 percent growth. The growth in Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls and Pocatello ranged from 30.9 percent to 35.4 percent. Lewiston/Moscow grew just 4.2 percent.

Leisure and hospitality: Growth in this major industry was 40 percent to 69 percent in three regions. One region experienced a 25 percent gain, one only 13 percent. Lewiston/Moscow came in last with 7 percent growth.

Manufacturing: Lewiston/Moscow’s manufacturing jobs declined steadily from 1994 to 2004 (-21 percent), climbed slightly to -17 percent by 2008, and by 2014 had returned to nearly the same level as existed in 1994.

Population growth: According to U.S. Census data, from 1993 to 2013 Idaho’s population grew by 45.5 percent. Lewiston’s population grew just 8.5 percent and Moscow’s 28.7 percent.

So, what role is waterborne commerce playing in the regional economy?

In its 2002 Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study, the Army Corps of Engineers claimed that shipping volume on the lower Snake River would increase in all five freight categories. The Corps’ projections have proven highly exaggerated in every category at every benchmark year. The Corps now categorizes the lower Snake as a waterway of “negligible use.”

Total freight volume on the lower Snake’s reservoirs over the past 15 years has dropped by nearly half. Container shipping has declined 99 percent, with much of that decline occurring well before container shippers abandoned the Port of Portland in 2015. Barges no longer ship lumber or paper, and little if any pulse crops. Even grain volume, nearly the only commodity still shipped on the Snake, has declined by 45 percent since 2000. None of the major employers in the region ship any product by barge, and most major imports, such as chemicals for making paper and fertilizer, arrive by rail.

Federal judges have repeatedly found the lower Snake dams are being operated in violation of federal law, and threatened and endangered wild salmon and steelhead remain in peril. Over $600 million spent “fixing” the dams has not improved juvenile fish survival. Fish mitigation costs on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have exceeded $14 billion with no species recovery in sight. The four lower Snake River dams now produce only 3 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electrical energy and only 6.5 percent of the Northwest’s hydropower.

Economic, biological, legal and climate realities cry for a change in the status quo. Citizens and politicians can embrace such change – turning the restoration of the lower Snake River into a major economic and ecological benefit – or continue down a path of high taxpayer and ratepayer costs, the likely extinction of Idaho’s sockeye salmon, continued economic uncertainty and stagnant economic growth.

Linwood Laughy, activist, author, outfitter and former educator, lives near Kooskia beside the Middlefork of the Clearwater River.

Judge’s order revives movement to remove Snake River dams

By Nicholas K. Geranios
The Associated Press
Nov. 7, 2016

Conservationists and others have renewed a push to remove four giant dams from the Snake River to save wild salmon runs, after a federal judge criticized the government for failing to consider whether breaching the dams would save the fish.

The judge earlier this year rejected the government’s fifth and latest plan for protecting threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River system. Read more…

Southern Resident Killer Whales are Dying of Starvation

By Chris Clarke
KCET.org
Oct. 31, 2016

The West Coast’s most celebrated marine mammal is in big trouble, and its supporters are pleading for the removal of four big dams that are killing off the species’ food supply.

At a somber ceremony in Seattle on Friday, cetacean biologists announced that two more members of the Southern Resident killer whale population’s “J pod” had died of apparent starvation in October, bringing the total population of Southern Resident orcas to 80. Read article in full…

Why the removal of four Snake River dams is a necessary and feasible action to save wild salmon.

Earthjustice.org

FOR NEARLY TWO DECADES, conservation and fishing groups have gone to court challenging federal agency plans that have failed to protect threatened and endangered Snake River salmon. During this time, five federal plans have been declared illegal by three federal judges.

The most recent court decision, issued May 4, 2016, by Judge Michael H. Simon, rejected the foundation for prior salmon plans. Significantly, it dismantled the paradigm of trying to restore endangered Snake River salmon without considering major modification or removal of some dams. Read article in full…

Scientists: Breach Snake River dams to save Puget Sound orcas

OregonLive.com
By The Associated Press
Oct. 29, 2016

SEATTLE — Researchers who track the endangered population of orcas that frequent Washington state waters said Friday that three whales are missing or believed dead since summer.

The most recent death of a 23-year-old female known as J28 and likely her 10-month-old calf drops the current population to 80, among the lowest in decades, according to the Center for Whale Research on Friday Harbor, which keeps the whale census for the federal government. Read article in full here…