Saturday, August 20, 2011

Snake Dams Living on Borrowed Time


In the wake of the latest court decision against the Columbia River BiOp, federal officials and regional politicians with a strong, entrenched interest in preserving the status quo have sought to interpret Judge Reddens rejection as tacit acceptance of the plan with a few minor tweaks. While federal officials may be slow to accept reality, the fact of the matter is, until we have an open stakeholder process to decide the fate of the Snake River dams, we will continue treading water as wild salmon populations slowly decline towards extinction.

In the late 1990's when many Columbia and Snake River populations hovered on the brink of extinction the prognosis was grim, many scientists believed extinction was inevitable saying,

"If we cannot improve mainstem passage survival and increase natural productivity so that progeny-to-parent ratios consistently exceed 1.0, recovery will never occur. Natural populations will go extinct and only hatchery fish will remain."

The problem with the Columbia then, and now is 14 mainstem dams on the Columbia and Snake which have turned what was once the greatest salmon bearing ecosystems in the world into a thousand mile long, warm, stagnating lake. Over the last decade salmon have been mercifully spared from extinction by period of good ocean conditions, and a strong willed federal judge who has ordered that water be spilled at dams during the juvenile outmigration. But the reality is wild fish remain extremely depressed. NOAA confirmed that fact this week, releasing their latest status review for the 13 listed stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia. The review came to the conclusion that all 13 should remain listed under their current designation. Simply put, they aren't recovering.

While things may seem good relative to the dark days of the 90's we're actually bouncing around the same long term average. That means, when ocean conditions turn south, or the BPA gets its way and stops spring spill, populations of wild salmon will plummet right back to where they were.

In the decade and a half since the ESA listings began on the Columbia we've hovered in limbo, never escaping the cycle of inadequate, overtly political recovery plan. Unfortunately that won't cut it and the federal government has wasted valuable time, perhaps the best ocean conditions we've seen in three decades, not to mention billions of dollars fighting to protect the status quo on the Columbia.

Climate change is coming, and while the effects may be imperceptible in the short term, the high desert rivers of the Snake and interior Columbia will eventually be some of the hardest hit in the region. Compounding the situation are hundreds of miles of slack water between the Sawtooth Range and the Pacific, which already serve to warm the Snake and Columbia to water temperatures that can be lethal to migrating salmon. A future with warmer summers, and lower snow pack does not bode well for wild salmon and steelhead, particularly if the Snake Dams remain in place.

Recognizing the inadequacy of federal efforts so far, many, including Marc Crapo Idaho's Republican Senator have proposed wiping the slate clean and coming at the problem of the Snake River with a new approach; one that actually includes the citizens of the region, one that weighs the long term costs and benefits of keeping the Snake Dams in place rather than simply protecting the entrenched interests of the BPA and barging companies. If there is the political courage to support such a process they will find it remarkably difficult to justify keeping the four lower Snake dams in place.

For all the billions of dollars we spend on failing mitigation efforts we are getting nowhere. A heavily subsidized barging industry, the main beneficiary of the Snake River dams could be readily replaced with modest improvements to already existing rail and highway infrastructure. And no matter how many times the federal BiOp insists that dam removal is not essential to recovering wild fish, they will eventually be forced to butt heads with this reality: wild salmon thrive in free flowing rivers, not stagnant man made impoundments. We've wasted the last 15 years squabbling over a plan that is destined to fail and it's time to change the conversation. Dam removal on the Lower Snake is crucial to the future of wild salmon in the region. Failing to take action would be a travesty of the highest order, joining the long list of pork barrel boondoggles, protected by the cushy relationship between a powerfully self-serving lobby and our "representative government".

The 15 million salmon and steelhead which once returned to the Columbia River each year are a centerpiece of our regions vast natural wealth, perhaps the single greatest self sustaining natural resource on the planet. A century of overzealous hydro development has left wild salmon teetering on the brink, and it's time for the conversation to change. The Snake Dams will come down, its just a matter of when, and whether it will be too late. That's why 1100 business owners from around the region have called on the federal government to convene an open stakeholder process to decide the future of our great rivers. Anything less would be a crime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant and on the money. Thanks for crafting such an excellent editorial.

I would only add that ocean acidifcation is the elephant in the living room...