IN THIS ISSUE:
1. A brief history of “spill”: our best near-term option for helping endangered wild salmon and steelhead.
2. The Pacific Northwest Salmon Collaboration – a status report.
3. Is Lower Snake River dredging REALLY a top priority? Taxpayer questions keep piling up.
4. Renewing the Columbia River Treaty: a-once-in-a-lifetime chance to help America’s greatest salmon river.
5. The Voyage of Rediscovery: an ambitious expedition to help restore the Columbia River’s legendary salmon.
1. A Brief History of “spill”: our best near-term option for helping endangered wild salmon and steelhead.
Spill – the act of sending water over the Columbia and Snake River’s federal dams rather than through the turbines – is the most effective salmon survival measure with dams in place. In a dammed river, spill is an important step toward the natural template – the conditions under which salmon evolved, which scientists overwhelmingly agree we must seek to mimic if we are to restore salmon.
The Columbia Basin is large - roughly the size of Texas. The Columbia River’s headwaters are located in Canada while the Snake originates near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This Basin was once the most productive salmon landscape on the planet – with up to 30 million fish returning annually for the benefit of people and ecosystems.
Today, it’s something of a stretch to call the Columbia and Snake “rivers” at all, given the back-to-back dams and reservoirs. Of the Columbia’s 600 non-tidal miles in the United States, just 51 still flow freely today – through the Hanford Reach in south-central Washington State (not coincidentally, also the home to the Basin’s strongest chinook populations). And in eastern Washington, many locals now refer to the Columbia’s biggest tributary as “Snake Lake”.
When compared with all other human causes of decline, dams are the biggest harvester of Columbia and Snake salmon. It’s the juvenile salmon – the smolts – migrating to the ocean through as many as eight dams and reservoirs that suffer the greatest casualties from the slack waters, long migration times, hot temperatures, high predator populations, and spinning turbines. Dams also inflict delayed mortality – fish that, while still alive when they hit the salt water, are so weakened by the cumulative stresses of migration through dams and reservoirs that they die at a higher rate in the ocean than do salmon from undammed or less-dammed rivers.
While far from perfect (the removal of the four lower Snake River dams would be considerably more helpful), spill helps mitigate the effects of dams in many ways: it shortens travel time to the ocean, reduces exposure to predators, helps move salmon through warm waters, keeps more fish out of spinning turbines, reduces human and mechanical handling, and reduces delayed mortality by reducing cumulative stress. Spill also reduces barging and trucking of juvenile salmon, the Army Corps’ preferred method of salmon migration despite its 30-year record of failure to restore salmon.
Scientists have long recognized the benefits of salmon spill and urged its expansion to help protect and recover endangered fish. Bonneville Power, on the other hand, has long opposed it, since spilled water does not spin turbines, produce electricity, or generate energy revenue. (It produces millions of dollars in salmon revenue, but BPA’s books don’t account for that.) BPA has long sought, and still seeks, to keep spill as discretionary as possible, so the agency could choose when, where and for how long to implement it.
A breakthrough came in 2005, when the U.S. District Court in Portland granted a spill injunction sought by the State of Oregon, Columbia River Tribes, and fishing and conservation groups. With the injunction, a base level of salmon spill has occurred each spring and summer for the last 8 years. This has generated many thousands more salmon and steelhead for people, economies and ecosystems. As you read these words, per federal court order, spill is pouring over the eight dams of the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers, carrying young salmon and steelhead more quickly and safely toward the Pacific Ocean.
In addition, these eight years of steady spill have provided a great deal of new data, over a range of water and weather conditions, on spill’s benefits and how best to manage it. The longest-running scientific study of Columbia and Snake River salmon passage and mortality recently concluded that additional spill, above the base level provided by the injunction, will boost salmon survival and adult returns even more - but only if the people and leaders of the Northwest choose to adopt it...We’ll dig into that more deeply in our July newsletter.
2. The Pacific Northwest Salmon Collaboration – a status report
As you know, SOS and our partners and allies have been seeking opportunities to resolve the long-standing conflicts in the Columbia and Snake Rivers through a collaborative stakeholder process, or “solutions table” – a place where all the parties with a stake in the intertwined issues of salmon, energy, agriculture, and transportation can sit down together to seek shared solutions. The goal: a lawful, science-based plan that restores healthy wild salmon and steelhead populations, expands the Northwest clean and affordable energy economy, and invests in our communities. In short, we believe that if stakeholders can work directly with each other to address and resolve their differences, we may just find that elusive common ground in the Columbia Basin.
Earlier this year, NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency with primary responsibility for protecting and restoring Columbia-Snake Basin salmon and steelhead, initiated a first step toward such a regional dialogue. NOAA contracted with a team of university-based facilitators to conduct a “situation assessment” of Columbia Basin salmon recovery issues – based on 200+ interviews with diverse stakeholders throughout the Northwest. These interviews will be completed and then compiled into a detailed report accompanied – we hope and expect - by options and recommendations for convening a formal stakeholder collaboration. The facilitators are now wrapping up the interviews, and will spend this summer assembling their final report – which will in turn be delivered to NOAA and the public late this summer.
Once the final report is released, NOAA will make a determination – in late 2013 or early 2014 – about what next steps to take for engaging stakeholders in collaboration and solutions. SOS and partners, along with dozens of elected officials and hundreds of businesses from around the country – and many of you – have worked hard over the past two years to support fair, open, inclusive stakeholder talks: an authentic, robust process to provide Northwesterners the workspace they need to find durable solutions for salmon, communities, and the region’s economy. As the initial assessment phase sets up NOAA’s next steps, we will continue to work hard to make direct stakeholder talks a reality. The path forward for the Columbia Basin’s salmon, people and jobs starts with regional collaboration, and the time for that collaboration is now.
3. Is Lower Snake River dredging REALLY a top priority? Taxpayer questions keep piling up.
We continue to bird-dog the Corps’ plans to spend millions of dollars to maintain a barging corridor of dubious value and confront the growing flood risk at the towns of Clarkston, WA and Lewiston, ID created by the loads of sediment piling up behind Lower Granite dam. Local citizens and groups are calling attention to the many millions of taxpayers dollars the Corps intends to spend on dredging and other potential measures include raising levees - a measure that is wildly unpopular in Lewiston. The Corps' final environmental impact statement is expected sometime this summer.
The growing maintenance costs associated with the aging four lower Snake River dams, combined with continuous taxpayer funds needed to shore up the Port of Lewiston are prompting more people to question the long-term viability of both the Port and the waterway. Today the Port of Lewiston handles a fraction of the waterborne goods it did two decades ago as more businesses choose rail and truck to deliver goods to Portland and Seattle for export.
At a recent meeting in Lewiston, residents raised concerns about the costs of maintaining the Port of Lewiston. Local citizens are still paying an annual $500,000 tax annually to support the Port, despite promises 40 years ago of financial self-sufficiency within its first 10 years of operation. Questions over the economic worth of the Port were front and center at the recent Port meeting: The Port of Lewiston’s rising costs and shrinking benefits are begging larger questions about the economic viability of the lower Snake River transportation waterway – and indeed - the dams themselves.
The Lewiston Tribune recently published a piece -If you do the math, the dams don't add up - by Chris Carlson, a former advisor to long-time Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, calling the question on the dams.
Excerpted from his new book Medimont Reflections, Carlson connects these low value dams to the growing crisis our nation faces over crumbling infrastructure and limited dollars to maintain them: “In this period of diminishing federal resources, as the nation tries to get a handle on its deficit spending challenge, the cost-benefits derived from (dam removal are) overwhelmingly compelling. Add to that the cost avoidance of the flooding of Lewiston and the elimination of shipping subsidies and breaching is a no-brainer.” Well said, Mr. Carlson.
4. Renewing the Columbia River Treaty: a-once-in-our-lifetime chance to help restore America’s greatest salmon river.
Save Our wild Salmon is joining with several other groups to make sure salmon and their habitats benefit from re-negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty that is now underway. This is a 50-year opportunity to re-align water, salmon and energy management in the Columbia Basin to flexibly respond to climate change, restore salmon where they have been extirpated, bring flood control into the 21st century, and do long-delayed justice to Columbia Basin Indian Tribes.??
The original 1964 Treaty contained just two purposes: hydroelectric development and flood control. This has privileged those two uses over all other Columbia uses and values, including river health, for 50 years. In addition, the Treaty was signed without consultation with Indian Tribes, yet they have been the people most negatively affected by it. The Treaty has done good for the Northwest, but it needs fundamental change if it is to keep doing good in the very different next 50 years awaiting us.
Fifteen Columbia Basin Indian Tribes have joined together to seek changes to the Treaty, notably:
- inclusion of a third purpose, called ecosystem-based function, co-equal with power and flood control.
- addition of a third treaty co-manager to represent ecosystem function (as Bonneville Power today represents power and the Army Corps flood control). Ideally, this should be the 15 Tribes themselves, with one vote.
- a significant forward turn of the Columbia hydrograph back toward the natural template prior to its dams, as the surest way that its waters, salmon, people and communities can respond effectively to the hot water challenge that has now begun.
- experimental salmon reintroduction and passage above the major salmon-impassable dams in the region, such as Grand Coulee and the Hells Canyon Complex.
We think these changes will be good for the entire Northwest and all its people, not just for the Tribes. They will certainly be good for the Basin's imperiled salmon and steelhead. So SOS is supporting these four Tribal proposals. The Tribes are focused primarily on the inside game - the complex Treaty process in which they have sovereign standing. SOS will focus primarily on the outside game - the public and political arenas where, in the end, final decisions on the next Treaty will be made. SOS' supporters will hear more about this work in coming months, on our website and in this newsletter.
Read Paul Lumley's op-ed in the Oregonian: To manage the Columbia River, we need a new treaty for a new era
5. Sea2Source: an ambitious expedition up the Columbia to restore a legendary river’s legendary salmon.
Five Intrepid paddlers leading five hand-carved canoes representing five species of species of salmon and steelhead. Sea2source is the name of an ambitious 1,000 mile expedition up the Columbia River. These “salmon canoes” will retrace the ancient migratory route of the wild salmon and steelhead populations that disappeared nearly 100 years ago with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam.
On August 1 in Astoria, Oregon, five beautiful hand-carved, community-crafted salmon canoes will begin a migration up the main channel of the Columbia River – participating in dozens of events along the way – and educating and inspiring people about the past, present and future for the Northwest’s signature river, its salmon, and peoples of this corner of America.
Save Our wild Salmon is a proud partner of Sea2Source –a project working to raise awareness about the plight of wild Columbia/Snake River salmon and steelhead; about how salmon extinction has impacted Columbia Basin Tribes like the Spokane and Colville; and how we can seize an opportunity today to right a past wrong.
The Sea2Source expedition is well-timed. The discussion and debate over how to modernize the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada is now underway (though largely beyond public view at the moment). What can we do as citizens, businesses, organizations to ensure that ecosystem-based functions including salmon restoration - join flood control and power production as fundamental treaty and management purposes?
LEARN more about the how and why in Episode 1: The Fish Ladder.
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