Sunday, December 26, 2010

Columbia Fish Passage Mitigation Costs

An article a few weeks ago in the Oregonian detailed the success of a newly constructed concrete wall below the Dalles Dam spillway. The project was designed to improve juvenile fish passage past the deadly dam by transporting them away from shallow water areas where they were easy fodder for predators. After a failed attempt in 2004 the project was relaunched in 2008 and last spring, juvenile salmon and steelhead migrated past the $51 million dollar structure for the first time. The project was successful in increasing the survival of juvenile spring/summer chinook by 4 percent to 96%, and juvenile fall chinook 7 percent to 94%. While the survival of juvenile steelhead past the Dalles was not previously monitored, this spring 95% of the young fish made it past the dam. While such efforts are required to meet the ESA mandated mitigation obligations for operating the Columbia hydrosystem, they can only do so much and the cost of mitigation efforts is only going up and up. Biologists with the Army Corp of Engineers now list the Dalles as one of the most fish friendly on the Columbia, highlighting the fact that at many dams fewer fish survive passage.

Imagine for a moment a juvenile spring chinook migrating from the Snake River. These fish have to migrate past 8 dams during their trip to the pacific. Even with tremendously expensive measures in place to improve fish passage at the dams, on average about 5% of fish will die at each dam. Add that up and out of 100 outmigrating smolts nearly 35 will die before they even reach the ocean. While this is a vast improvement from the past, the undeniable fact is that dams are still a massive hindrance to the recovery of wild salmon in the Columbia. Add in the fact that smolts now arrive weeks later than they did historically and their odds of survival once they hit the ocean is further reduced. Federal regulators and biologists have tried to get around the problem by barging huge numbers of fish from the Snake to the Pacific, however the program has questionable survival benefits for juvenile fish and has the unintended consequence of dramatically increasing the rate of straying in the Columbia. Stray fish, particularly stray hatchery fish are a major danger to ESA listed wild fish because they are not adapted to the river in which they spawn. By increasing the stray rate on the Columbia we are reducing the productivity of wild stocks through introgression with unfit hatchery fish AND undermining local adaptation produced by thousands of years of genetic isolation.

The bottom line is, as long as the dams stand in the way of migrating salmon there is only so much we can do. While no one will argue that the economy in the Northwest will ever be without hydropower, there are a few things we can do. The first is to take out the four lower snake river dams which provide trivial amounts of power, and are in place only to provide massively subsidized transportation for wheat grown by farmers in eastern washington, oregon and idaho. The 2009-2010 budget for the Army Corps mitigation costs was $85 million dollars. A number of dams in the basin are owned by other entities so that cost is only a fraction of what is spent on fish mitigation each year in the Columbia. Add in the cost of maintaining the locks, dredging canals for shipping and you start to see the real cost of keeping the four Snake River dams in place.

We stand at a crossroads with Judge James Redden set to make a decision in the New Year on the legality of the Obama BiOp. Now is the time for the federal government to provide visionary leadership and a longterm solution to the ongoing battle over ESA listed Snake River salmon. Rather than fighting for the status quo where the shipping industry is massively subsidized by federal dollars we should be removing the four lower Snake dams and improving rail infrastructure to make up for lost transportation capacity.

See the article in the Oregonian:

Email or call Washington Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and tell them to take a stand for Snake River Salmon.

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