October 27, 2013
By John Osborn And Suzanne Skinner
These falls are that place where ghosts of salmon jump, where ghosts of women mourn their children who will never find their way back home.
From “The Place where the Ghosts of Salmon Jump,” by Sherman Alexie (inscribed at the Spokane Falls overlook).
Canada and the United States are preparing to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty, first signed in 1961, governs management of the Columbia, once the richest salmon river on Earth, but now converted by dams into the world’s largest integrated hydropower system.
Reconsideration of the treaty will profoundly impact the future economies, environment and quality of life of people on both sides of the border. That’s why last August, thousands of Pacific Northwest citizens wrote to urge the federal government to include ecosystem restoration as a core component of a renegotiated treaty. They also called for opening the Upper Columbia Basin to the salmon that once thrived above Grand Coulee Dam, including in the Spokane River.
The federal government listened.
The current U.S. position recommends the U.S. State Department make managing the health and environment of the Columbia watershed a central purpose of a modernized treaty – as important as power generation and flood control. This is a wise and farsighted recommendation that will not only enhance the lives and economies of future generations in the Columbia basin, but also provide some recompense to the Columbia River tribes whose economies, culture and spirituality remains intertwined with salmon despite terrible damage wrought by dams.
Managing the Columbia for its environmental health must mean more than current efforts to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Current recovery efforts fail to meet the life-cycle needs of the Northwest’s most iconic species. Most wild populations are maintaining or declining, despite coming under the protection of the act between 14 and 22 years ago. Present management of Columbia dams remains unsustainable for salmon and other native species.
Climate change is also aggravating existing river-management challenges. This summer, temperatures from McNary Dam to Bonneville Dam on the Columbia were 70 degrees or above for 41 straight days, and for 56 straight days in the middle and longest part of that reach. This previews coming years, when this year’s highest temperature, 73.2 degrees at John Day Dam on Sept. 11, will be a new norm that portends an unhealthy river pushing salmon to extinction.
Washington will suffer impacts of climate change more acutely than British Columbia. In the decades ahead, as much as 60 percent of summer flows in the Columbia will come from our neighbor to the north. We must renegotiate the treaty to include ecosystem restoration so that our two nations have a framework to respond effectively to climate changes already unfolding in the basin.
Northwest utilities currently oppose adding “ecosystem” and “environment” to the treaty, even seeking to terminate the treaty if they don’t get their way. We believe this position overlooks that, for today’s Northwest, ecosystem function is economic function. Both Northwest power production and flood risk management will improve with ecosystem function as the treaty’s third purpose. So will other river-based economic sectors, including salmon. All economic activities in the Columbia River Basin will be damaged by the hotter, unhealthier waters that climate change is creating. All will benefit by urgent, creative bilateral responses.
Indeed, a much-needed creative response that would benefit both the U.S. and Canada is to jointly plan how to open up miles of habitat now closed to salmon in British Columbia and the U.S., including the Spokane River.
We do not have to settle for ghost fish. Restoring the ecosystem of the Columbia holds the promise of healthy salmon returning to the headwaters and someday jumping once again at Spokane Falls.
Decisions made now will have an enormous impact on our region’s economy, environment, and quality of life for the next 50 years.
Help restore the Columbia to health.
Help bring the salmon home.
Help make restoring the Columbia’s ecosystem a core purpose of a modernized Columbia River Treaty.
John Osborn, M.D., Columbia River Future Project, Sierra Club
Suzanne Skinner, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy