The floor, not the ceiling

Salmon returns in the Columbia-Snake

Smoltinpipe2This summer, the Columbia-Snake River Basin is witnessing a very positive return of salmon and steelhead. Scientists credit favorable ocean conditions, along with the court-ordered spill of water over some of the basin’s dams, for swelling the ranks of fish.

The increases in spill (the good kind) — won in court by Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition members alongside the legal team at Earthjustice — helps many more baby salmon survive their epic migrations from mountain streams to the sea where they grow to adulthood. Scientists also credit this spill with significantly contributing to a chinook salmon return currently 140 percent above the 10-year average and a sockeye run breaking modern records.

For those working to restore vibrant runs of salmon to the Columbia-Snake, this year’s salmon returns offer a glimpse of what could be achieved if we follow science to protect what was once the world’s most productive salmon watershed. For the communities that rely on these fish, and for the durability of the Endangered Species Act, these returns should represent the floor, not the ceiling, as we assess the recovery of Columbia-Snake salmon and the economic, cultural, and ecosystem needs of the region.

Unfortunately, the latest federal salmon plan would cut back the spill of water for baby salmon and would let the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bonneville Power Administration foreclose on what scientists say is an even more crucial step for the basin’s fish: breaching the lower four Snake River dams. To date the federal agencies have been unwilling to contend with these elephants in the room. As long as NOAA and BPA refuse to do what’s necessary to recover these salmon populations, we will never get to a real solution to the salmon crisis, and wild salmon will continue to decline toward extinction.

As you may know, the Columbia-Snake Basin— which includes parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Nevada— is one of the most dammed river systems on Earth. Dams on the lower Snake and mainstem Columbia are by far the biggest killer of endangered wild salmon and steelhead, but NOAA and BPA continue to downplay those impacts and instead attribute both good and bad returns to ocean conditions.

Ocean conditions always have been, and always will be, cyclical and largely beyond our control, and there are some indications that ocean conditions will not be so beneficial over the next few years. The science tells us the way to ensure strong salmon returns in variable ocean cycles is to fix their freshwater habitat, including removing the four lower Snake River dams. With strong actions like dam removal, salmon populations will be able to weather poor ocean cycles in good health and thrive when ocean conditions are good.

It remains critical that the federal government develop a new salmon plan that uses the best scientific and economic information available. Let’s hope the good news brought by the strong returns this summer gives President Obama and Congress the confidence to bring together fishing, farming, and energy interests to tackle the crisis in the Columbia Basin and restore our wild salmon and steelhead to healthy, abundant levels.

For more information on salmon returns, please contact Rhett Lawrence:, 503.230.0421 x18

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