News Articles

Important articles published by national and regional news outlets related to wild salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

By Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times environment reporter
May 14, 2021

2021.Lower Snake Dams ST.MapWashington state’s U.S. senators and its governor have joined forces against a proposal from U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River and replace their benefits as part of a multitrillion dollar infrastructure bill being crafted by the Biden administration.

The proposal had gained the support of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., as well as many tribes, after it was announced last winter.

But Republican members of Washington’s congressional delegation opposed Simpson’s plan before it was even officially released, and the state’s top Democratic elected officials were largely mum until Thursday.

“While we appreciate Rep. Simpson’s efforts and the conversations we have had so far with Tribes and stakeholders, it is clear more work within the Pacific Northwest is necessary to create a lasting, comprehensive solution, and we do not believe the Simpson proposal can be included in the proposed federal infrastructure package,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee said in a joint statement provided to The Seattle Times.

The two Democratic leaders added that regional collaboration on a comprehensive, long-term solution to protect and bring back salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin and throughout the Pacific Northwest is needed now more than ever.

But they urged a process to a solution that would honor tribal treaty rights, ensure reliable transportation and use of the river, ongoing access for anglers and sport fishers and the continued delivery of reliable hydropower.

“Washington state has a history of successfully bringing diverse groups together to develop solutions that benefit all stakeholders. This must be the model for the management of the Columbia River Basin,” the two continued in their statement.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell also told The Seattle Times she does not support the Simpson proposal, though she does support salmon recovery not only in the Columbia Basin, but across the region, and collaborative processes to get there.

“This proposal has some things we should focus on; diversifying beyond hydro is a great idea, planning for new investment is a great idea, but the rest is not well thought out enough at this point,” Cantwell said of the Simpson proposal.

“Very, very valuable salmon recovery needs to happen and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity of this infrastructure bill to do that, and Puget Sound, being a powerhouse of salmon recovery opportunity, should be focused on. We should be clear that we are maximizing those opportunities.”

Money to help pay for removal and replacement of highway culverts that block salmon passage is just one such investment that could be made in the federal infrastructure package, Cantwell said.

Feds ramp up spill over dams to help salmon

The statements came as the region undertakes unprecedented steps to rescue Snake River Chinook salmon runs that are headed to extinction.

Federal agencies recently agreed to an operating plan for the dams that includes a broad suite of actions, including spilling large amounts of water over spillways at Columbia and Lower Snake River dams to help push young salmon now migrating to the sea downriver — and route them around, rather than through, powerhouses.

Unprecedented amounts of water are being spilled over Columbia and Lower Snake River dams to help baby salmon to the sea. This video shows 73 percent of the flow of the Columbia River crashing over the spillway at John Day Dam on May 11. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers video by Christopher Gaylord)

The spill program was initiated on an experimental basis in 2019 and has so far shown promise. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the region’s federal hydropower dams, was able to end last year in the black even while spilling water over the dams for fish instead of generating power. And customers suffered no compromise in reliability even as the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, directed spill rates of nearly 90% of the river flow at some times.

The program is in place at four mainstem dams on the Columbia River and four on the Lower Snake. The system is run during the migration season to optimize spill 16 hours a day. The rest of the time, BPA picks the most profitable time of day to run water through power turbines.

Early results show that young fish have been able to reduce their travel time to the sea, and are not traumatized by the spill. But the real results won’t be known for years, when adults come back to spawn.

The most recent environmental assessment of dam operations for survival of fragile populations projects continued declines for Snake River salmon in poor years, such as will be more common under climate change.

Climate change is severely challenging salmon, cold water animals that can become diseased or even be killed outright in temperatures above 68 degrees if the temperatures remain high enough long enough.

Warmer sea surface temperatures caused by climate change also are predicted in recent published scientific research to particularly stress Snake River spring and summer Chinook, endangering them with extinction and requiring an even more intense effort to support their survival in all life stages.

Snake River spring and summer Chinook are in dire shape, analysis by the Nez Perce Tribe shows. Many populations of Chinook already meet the threshold of quasi-extinction, meaning 50 or fewer adult spawners are making it back to their home streams, said Jay Hesse, director of biological services for the tribe.

Simpson’s big pitch

Into this logjam stepped Simpson last winter, with a proposal to breach the four Lower Snake River dams, digging out the earthen berms around them and leaving the dams in a mothballed status.

To replace the benefits of the dams he proposes creation of a $34 billion Columbia Basin Fund within the national infrastructure bill, from getting agricultural products to market, to reconfiguring irrigation infrastructure, buying replacement power and modernizing the electric grid to accommodate more and diverse sources of clean energy.

A dozen tribes across the Columbia Basin also issued statements last month in support of a legislative solution to the Columbia Basin salmon crisis.

Some of the tribes were enemies with one another long ago, and even today have very different interests. But they are united in their commitment to salmon recovery, noted Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe and a proponent of the Simpson proposal.

For tribes, salmon are a matter of cultural survival ensured as part of the bargain made in the treaties with the United States, Wheeler said. The Nez Perce reserved their rights to fish in all of their accustomed places in their treaty of 1855. “We ceded 13 million acres to protect a way of life,” Wheeler said.

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians also is going to consider a resolution in support of the Simpson proposal, said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the ATNI.

Simpson said in an interview he has pivoted to a new strategy to provide the money for a Columbia Basin Fund in the national bill, but work out over the next year or two the writing of legislation to implement it.

He acknowledged the proposal is a politically difficult lift — and said he’s been censured by the Republican Party in his own state for his efforts.

But, Simpson said, he remains undeterred: “I think we were elected to solve problems.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes. Lynda specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history, and Native American tribes.

By Eli Francovich and Orion Donovan-Smith
May 9, 2021

Nez Perce Tribe 200x200LEWISTON – In a cavernous warehouse above the Clearwater River east of Lewiston, 1.14 million spring chinook swam, swirling together into evanescent balls of silver, breaking into smaller configurations and then returning. It’s a hypnotic dance under harsh industrial lights and spread among 38 large green tubs, each holding more than 30,000 of the small fish.

It’s just another Monday for the Nez Perce Tribe’s fisheries program.

A sprawling operation that employs upward of 180 people depending on the season, it runs projects in Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The tribe grows 10 million fish a year and spends around $22 million yearly trying to preserve ocean-going species like salmon and steelhead.

That investment is essential for a people – the Nimiipúu – for whom fish, particularly chinook salmon, have played a keystone spiritual, cultural and economic role for more than 16,000 years. For generations, the Nez Perce lived throughout central Idaho, parts of southeast Washington and northeast Oregon. They traveled extensively, hunting bison in Montana and fishing for salmon on the main stem of the Columbia River.

“There is an ancient covenant there that is between the salmon, the animals and us, as humans,” said tribal chairman Shannon Wheeler.

Now, that covenant is imperiled. Since the construction of more than 400 barriers up and down the Columbia River basin, populations of chinook salmon, steelhead and lamprey have plummeted – particularly after four dams were built on the Lower Snake River in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Throughout that decadeslong decline, the Nez Perce Tribe has continued to pour money, time and hope into restoring habitat and increasing survival for the migratory fish.

And yet a Nez Perce tribal study published this month found that wild spring and summer chinook populations are declining by 19% per year. If trends continue, by 2025 77% of the Snake River basin spring and summer chinook populations will be perilously close to extinction. Famous spawning habitat like the Middle Fork Salmon River will see fewer than 50 spawners return each year, if tribal modeling is accurate. The picture is only slightly less grim for steelhead populations.

“We’re at that critical juncture in time,” Wheeler said. “With the Northwest delegation (in Congress), with energy, with transportation – and especially, especially with salmon and the crisis they’re in.”

Spurred by that sense of urgency, the tribe has thrown its support behind a proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, to save salmon and transform the economy of the Columbia Basin by breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River and replacing their benefits with $33.5 billion of investment in power generation, transportation, agriculture and more.

To the Nez Perce Tribe, it was a long-awaited show of support – launched at an auspicious time – from a federal government that has reneged, time and again, on promises and assurances made to the Nimiipúu.

Wheeler turned to a powerful quartet of Northwest Democrats in the Senate for support – Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley – asking them in a letter to come to the table in a “collaborative spirit,” as he said, and at least consider Simpson’s proposal.

“We’re trying to do all the right things here,” Wheeler said. “We need help with that.”

Fishing rights through a new lens?
Northwest elected officials have preferred a slow, careful approach to resolving the region’s long-running “salmon wars,” most recently backing an agreement last October between the governors of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana to work to rebuild fish stocks in the Columbia Basin.

When Simpson unveiled his proposal in February, Murray, Cantwell, Wyden and Merkley issued a noncommittal joint statement calling for “all communities in the Columbia River Basin and beyond (to) be heard in efforts to recover the Northwest’s iconic salmon runs while ensuring economic vitality of the region.”

Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress have embraced an agenda of unprecedented federal spending aimed in part at righting past wrongs. While the Biden administration has woven racial justice considerations into its American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan – which propose spending a combined $4 trillion over a decade – Northwest tribes are still pushing lawmakers to make the fishing rights guaranteed by treaties a priority at the federal level.

A spokesman for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead a cabinet-level agency, declined to comment on Simpson’s proposal or how the federal government should balance tribal fishing rights against the benefits dams provide. The Interior Department includes both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees hydroelectric dams.

With relative silence from Democrats, Simpson has emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of treaty rights in Congress.

“If you look throughout history,” Simpson said in March, “the United States has not always kept its treaty obligations with tribes. In fact, you could say we rarely have kept our treaty obligations. One of the treaty obligations we have with tribes is to maintain the fishing rights that they have. You can’t do that if you don’t have fish.”

“I’ve been encouraged that the conversation about salmon restoration has finally been tied to social justice and human rights,” said Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director for the conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon. “Certainly the tribes have been talking about it in those terms for a long time, but I don’t think that our society or our elected leaders have been viewing the issue through that lens.”

Sophia Ressler, Washington wildlife attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmentalist group that opposes Simpson’s plan but supports dam breaching, blamed the four Democratic senators from Oregon and Washington for leaving an opening for the Republican’s proposal.

“Legislators in both states have wasted years allowing federal agencies to play kick the can with dam removal and salmon recovery in the Columbia River basin,” Ressler said in a statement. “Now they seem content to let a Republican from eastern Idaho set the course for the entire region in closed-door meetings. It’s absurd, and the residents of Washington and Oregon should demand better from their elected officials.”

Simpson, who sits on the influential House Appropriations Committee and is known as a wily legislator, has said he hopes to include funding for his proposal in the infrastructure package now in the works, even if legislation detailing the plan takes longer to craft.

“I’d like to see the money put aside first, so that we know that it’s going to be there, so that when we come to this compromise, when we come to this solution, we have the resources to implement it,” Simpson said in a virtual event Tuesday.

Murray, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said on a call with reporters April 27 there was likely not enough time to resolve the many disagreements over Simpson’s proposal and include it in the infrastructure package.

“The issue of salmon and our dams has been one of controversy for as long as I can remember, and we’ve been in court battles forever. So I commend (Simpson) for putting the proposal out, but it needs a lot of work yet,” Murray said. “We need to make sure that everybody has a voice at the table and has a look at that, and this infrastructure package that we are moving right now is moving fairly quickly. So it would be a huge challenge to get all those people at the table at this time to try and do something on that.”

In a statement Friday, Murray said she is “committed to making sure the federal government is doing its part to recover our iconic salmon runs.”

“I’ve fought hard to protect and strengthen federal investments in salmon recovery and research efforts, and honoring Tribal treaties and the priorities of our Tribes has long been a key consideration for me in all policymaking,” she said. “I’ll continue listening to local Tribes, advocates, and all stakeholders as we work to restore this critical part of our state’s environment, heritage, and future.”

While the Nez Perce stand to benefit clearly from increased salmon runs on the Snake River, other Northwest tribes have also backed Simpson’s plan, which includes provisions to help restore salmon, steelhead and lamprey in other parts of the Columbia Basin. Delano Saluskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s tribal council, brought the issue up when Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff visited Yakima County on April 6.

“We are fish people,” Saluskin said to Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. “We live off fish. We honor the fish in our first foods ceremony. And if we don’t do something now, we are all going to be competing to catch that last salmon.”

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a nonprofit that represents 57 tribal governments in the region, has not taken a position on Simpson’s proposal but adopted a resolution in 2019 supporting the consideration of breaching the lower Snake River dams. Leonard Forsman, ATNI president and chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said in an email the group has long advocated for salmon recovery “via litigation, government-to-government consultations, and in other ways.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat, voiced support for tribal rights in a joint event with Simpson on Tuesday. While Blumenauer expressed some reservations, the virtual event represented the closest thing yet to a Democratic endorsement of the Idaho Republican’s proposal.

“The Columbia River Basin sort of defines who we are, our history,” Blumenauer said. “But it’s not just us recent arrivals, white settlers and whatnot, but Indigenous people who were here thousands of years, and the basin helped define who they were, their religion, the way in which they traveled and worked together.”

‘Usual and accustomed’
To understand the salmon issue, and by extension the dams, it’s vital to consider the history. When white people first encountered the Nez Perce, they came across “the largest, most powerful and influential nation of Indians in the northwest area of the Rocky Mountains,” according to the Indians Claims Commission, a federal arbitration commission formed in 1946.

That history goes back much further, though. In 2019, archaeologists made headlines when they carbon-dated charcoal and bone left at Cooper’s Ferry on the Salmon River. Those artifacts are more than 16,000 years old, according to the research published in Science, and 7,000 years older than Kennewick Man, whose skeletal remains were found along the Columbia in 1996.

That’s a fact Wheeler emphasized several times, always quick to add that this is the oldest “documented” proof. In other words, the Nez Perce were not surprised by the study’s findings.

“Our stories already tell us how long we’ve been here. … This (study) only reaffirms that,” Nakia Williamson, the tribe’s director of cultural resources, told Science in 2019.

Indeed, tribal biologists consider tribal lore when conducting fisheries work. Stories passed down from generation to generation aren’t just myths and legends: they’re relaying important ecological information, a fact laid out in the tribe’s fisheries management plans.

“Oral traditions are stories that teach many of the central concepts used in contemporary natural resource management,” the plan states, adding later “animals and humans are fully integrated and connected with the ecosystem; humans do not exist independent of the world and animals around them.”

This interconnection proved fruitful for the Nez Perce. It’s estimated that tribal people ate 300 pounds of fish per year. When in 1805 the Nez Perce people saved Lewis and Clark from starvation, they fed the explorers dried salmon. The tribe’s welcome was so warm it prompted Clark to write that it exceeded even the hospitality from “our own countrymen.” Lewis and Clark later gave the Nez Perce a peace medal.

The peace did not last.

By 1850, more white people moved into the area, leading to greater conflict. That led to the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla. Unlike many other tribes, the Nez Perce retained nearly 60% of their native land – roughly 8 million acres.

In exchange for ceding their land, the federal government guaranteed the Nimiipúu “the exclusive right of taking fish in the streams running through and bordering” the Nez Perce Reservation “and at all other usual and accustomed stations.”

And, fatefully, the tribe retained expansive off-reservation hunting and fishing rights throughout current day Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon, the so-called “usual and accustomed” places.

This state of affairs lasted less than a decade. By 1860, gold had been discovered in the North Fork of the Clearwater River and white people were flooding into Nez Perce lands. Whole towns, including Orofino and Lewiston, were built in violation of the treaty.

In response, the U.S. government shredded the 1855 treaty and shrank the Nez Perce lands to just 770,000 acres. The 1863 treaty, known as the “great steal” by the Nimiipúu, led to a brutal war in 1877 that sent Nimiipúu children and women fleeing to Canada, chased by U.S. soldiers.

Despite that, one thing didn’t change: The Nez Perce retained the legal right to fish and hunt off the reservation.

‘We’re not pretending here’
This is the history that must be understood when discussing dams or the commitment the tribe has to salmon – and the commitment the United States has to the tribe.

Since its founding in 1981, the Nez Perce fisheries department has tried to make the fisheries whole. They’ve improved wild spawning habitat up and down the Snake River basin, worked with state and federal managers to reduce predation on salmon, improve survival over the dams and invested millions into hatchery programs.

All that work has helped, but it’s not been enough, said David Johnson, director of the Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Management.

Chinook and steelhead numbers have continued to drop, most precipitously since the construction of the four Lower Snake River dams between 1962 and 1975. Even the protection and billions of dollars provided by the 1991 Endangered Species Act listing of sockeye salmon has failed to stem the hemorrhaging.

“The hydro system is really the big one,” Johnson said. “It kills close to 50% of the fish as they leave from here and go down to the ocean. So that is a huge source of mortality.”

The most recent study, published this month, only further highlights the bleak reality, and points again to the impacts the dams are having on wild fish.

“The analysis … really slapped us in the face,” he said of the study. “We’re not pretending here. These numbers are really troubling.”

And those troubling numbers are the responsibility of the federal government, argues Elliott Moffett, the president of the nonprofit Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. Simpson’s plan, which the congressman often says aims to make all the region’s stakeholders whole, is the “closest we’ve been to recognizing and acknowledging treaty rights,” he said.

“We’re really talking about mismanagement of our treaty and our treaty resources,” Moffett said. “It’s kind of ironic that everyone is asking to be made whole. When do the tribes get to be made whole?”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

A series of dams is threatening the local salmon population.

By Kayna Whitworth, Alyssa Pone, andHaley Yamada
April 23, 2021

blog 120206 Ice Harbor oil spillWatch the video here:

Conservation group American Rivers has named Snake River, which passes through four Western states, the most endangered river in the country due to a series of dams that it says are threatening the existence of the river’s native salmon population.

“They’ve never been closer to extinction than they are today. We’ve got to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River,” said Amy Souers Kober, an American Rivers spokesperson.

The Snake River Basin is home to half of all Pacific salmon in the lower 48 states, the group wrote in a statement.

The fishing industry in the region alone generates $5 billion annually and supports more than 36,000 jobs, according to American Rivers.

“When people don’t come to fish, then the cash registers aren’t ringing and that’s had a pretty big economic impact,” said Mark Deming, of Northwest River Supplies, an outdoor gear and equipment company.

For decades, some environmental activists have been advocating for breaching, or getting rid of, the earthen portion of the dams, on the river. But the dams also serve a purpose for farmers, supporting their 5 million acres of land in southeastern Washington State alone, and aiding in the transportation of 10% of the nation’s wheat exports, which travel by barge, according to the Idaho State government.

Wheat farmer Tom Kammerzell said the river system is environmentally friendly and cost effective.

“There’s a very slim margin of profits in wheat,” said Kammerzell. “It would be impossible to continue to be able to produce [without the river].”

Currently, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson wants to have $33.5 billion from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan earmarked to save the Snake River. His plan includes removing the earthen part of the dams to clear the waterways, replacing the energy produced at the dams, and upgrading the transportation and irrigation services that the dams provide, hoping to make the communities that the river serves, like the farmers, whole until they can supplement shipping methods.

Rocky Barker for the Idaho Statesman
April 30, 2021

2021.earl.bluOregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer will hold a virtual town meeting with Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson to give Oregonians a chance to hear about the $33 billion Columbia Basin Initiative.

Blumenauer, a liberal Democrat, is the first Congressman of either party to express general support for Simpson’s concept, which includes breaching four dams on the Snake River to prevent the extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead. The virtual town hall is scheduled for 7 p.m. Mountain on Tuesday at Blumenauer’s YouTube channel. The actual conversation will take place at 6 p.m. Mountain on Monday, with questions solicited in advance.

Simpson’s ambitious concept calls for upgrading the electrical grid, replacing the current barge shipping on the Snake River and making the communities of Lewiston and the Tri-Cities of Washington whole while removing the four Lower Snake dams to keep Idaho’s salmon from going extinct. Simpson seeks to place the proposal on President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure bill.

Blumenauer said the status quo clearly is not working.  “It is an existential threat to iconic fish species, to indigenous ways of life, and to sustainability and prosperity throughout the region.,” Blumenauer said in a press release. “We have an opportunity to end this cycle of conflict, degradation and regional uncertainty.”

He called Simpson’s proposal “a bold starting point to address this” that “deserves thoughtful consideration from all sides.”

So far Simpson has support from the region’s Indian tribes, many environmental and sporting business groups and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon. But Idaho Gov. Brad Little, the Idaho Legislature, grain farmers who ship on the Snake and a separate group of environmentalists who oppose the proposed litigation moratorium, have come out against Simpson’s idea.

Others, including the Democratic senators from Oregon and Washington and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have supported a collaborative process but have not endorsed adding the plan to Biden’s infrastructure bill. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell told The Spokesman-Review in Spokane she did not believe there was enough time to add the comprehensive proposal to Biden’s bill.

With the salmon and steelhead runs so low this spring, the pressure for political action is rising. Twelve Northwest Indian tribes, a major constituency of downstream Democrats and Biden, came together this month in Pendleton, Oregon, and issued statements in support of Simpson’s concept.  “We invite and challenge our partners and our neighbors to take a hard look at how Congressman Simpson’s proposal could benefit our energy security, our economies and our critical natural resources."

Blumenauer also will join Simpson on May 13 as a speaker at the Andrus Center for Public Policy’s follow-up virtual conference to its 2019 conclave, where Simpson began his salmon and dam talks. Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, a staunch dam supporter, also will speak along with Nez Perce tribal chairman Shannon Wheeler.

“These days it’s rare to see a Democrat and Republican thoughtfully discussing something together, but I’m committed to working with him and communities across the region to help craft solutions that protect and restore salmon throughout the (Columbia) Basin, ensure environmental protections, and help our communities thrive,” Blumenauer said. 

By Eric Barker
April 26, 2021

Nez Perce.snake.riverLEWISTON – The Army Corps of Engineers is operating the lower Snake River at a water elevation that decreases survival of protected salmon and steelhead but provides safer navigation conditions for tug and barge operators.

Fish managers have protested the move intended to increase the depth of the navigation channel near Lewiston and argued the needs of the fish should take precedence over transportation of grain and other products. For example, the Nez Perce Tribe suggested that river transportation be temporarily halted or the location of the shipping channel shifted to deeper areas of the reservoir as alternatives to raising the elevation.

“The point of our concern really kind of boils down to, yes, (navigation) is one of the many purposes the Corps of Engineers has for the system, but we are also dealing with fish listed under the Endangered Species Act here,” said David Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management. “In our mind, especially with as low as these (salmon and steelhead) returns have been the last several years, the Corps and (Bonneville Power Administration) could be giving a lot more consideration to how they are operating these dams.

“In times of healthy returns, (a trade-off like raising the river) is something that should be considered, but a trade-off in times of horrible returns shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of the fish.”

Dredging of the navigation channel last occurred in 2015. Since then, sediment at and near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers has accumulated to the point that, in some places, the channel no longer maintains its federally prescribed minimum depth of 14 feet, raising the risk of barges running aground.

Port of Lewiston Manager David Doeringsfeld said the turning basin in front of the port is also becoming shallow, but the berthing areas are sufficiently deep.

In response to the sedimentation, the Corps opted to raise the river above the elevation prescribed by the latest biological opinion – a federal document that spells out measures designed to ensure salmon and steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act aren’t pushed further toward extinction.

The agency intends to keep the river 3 feet above that level, known as minimum operating pool, when flows are less than 50,000 cubic feet per second, 2 feet higher when flows are between 50,000 and 79,000 cfs, 1 foot higher between 80,000 and 119,000 cfs, and at the prescribed minimum operating pool when flows are 120,000 cfs or higher. At each of the levels, the agency is permitted 1½ feet of flexibility, meaning the elevation could be even higher at times.

“(The Corps) will operate Lower Granite Dam to temporarily hold water to a higher level when flows are low to maintain the federal navigation channel, until sediment can be removed,” agency spokesman Matt Rabe at Portland said via a prepared statement. “The District continues to develop plans to perform work to remove sediments which are impacting the federally authorized navigation channel.”

Juvenile salmon and steelhead depend on river current to flush them downstream. The biological opinion calls for a lower elevation from April 1 to Aug. 14 because it helps the reservoir to behave more like a free-flowing river.

“When the pool is lower, at minimum operating pool, that allows the fastest water velocity through the reservoir, which then results in faster fish travel time, which then results in higher survival,” said Jay Hesse, director of biological services for Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management. “As the pool elevation rises, the water velocity slows down and the fish travel time slows down and the survival decreases.”

Hesse said the Corps has agreed to try to shrink its 1½-foot operational flexibility down to 1 foot.

When the river hits the reservoir and its current slows, the sediment carried by the water drops out and accumulates on the bed. The agency typically dredges every seven to 10 years to clear the channel.

“Based on existing conditions and anticipated sedimentation, a dredging action to address immediate navigation needs is expected to be required to maintain safe navigation conditions while the other efforts are underway,” Corps spokesman Joseph Saxon at Walla Walla said. “In the meantime, the (Corps) will operate Lower Granite Dam to temporarily hold water to a higher level when flows are low to maintain the federal navigation channel, until sediment can be removed.”

Dredging is controversial. It adds to the cost of operating the federal hydropower system and some argue the in-water disposal of spoils in deeper areas of the reservoir downstream of Lewiston can harm protected fish as well as unlisted juvenile Pacific lamprey that live in the sediment. Fish advocates, including the Nez Perce Tribe, have gone to court in the past to stop dredging.

Chinook, steelhead populations in Snake River Basin are nearing critical threshold, according to Nez Perce report

By Eric Barker
Apr 30, 2021

Nez Perce Tribe 200x200Nearly half of the wild spring chinook populations in the Snake River Basin have crossed a critical threshold, signaling they are nearing extinction and without intervention may not persist, according to analysis by the Nez Perce Tribe.

The river’s steelhead populations, while doing better, also face alarming threats to their existence, according to the work.

Modeling conducted by fisheries scientists at the tribe and shared with other state, federal and tribal fisheries managers in the Columbia Basin indicates if current trends continue, 77 percent of Snake River spring chinook populations and 44 percent of steelhead populations will be in a similar position within four years.

Tribal fisheries officials say a wide array of short- and long-term actions, such as new conservation hatcheries, predator control, increased spill at Snake and Columbia river dams, and adoption of Rep. Mike Simpson’s plan to breach the four lower Snake River dams, are urgently needed. Fisheries officials in Oregon and Washington agree dam removal should be considered and other actions above and beyond current salmon and steelhead recovery efforts should be pursued.

The tribe found 42 percent of Snake River spring chinook and 19 percent of steelhead have reached the quasi-extinction threshold — an analytical tool used by the federal government to assess the risk of extinction or measure the viability of fish populations. The threshold is tripped when a natural origin population of fish has 50 or fewer spawners return to natal streams for four consecutive years. “It’s a return, a series of returns, that demonstrates you better do something or you are going to lose your ability to do much of anything,” said David Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management.

Further modeling by the tribe shows Snake River spring chinook populations that are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act declined at a rate of 19 percent over the past 10 years and steelhead fell at an 18 percent clip during the same time period.

Jay Hesse, director of biological services for Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries, examined data from 31 of the basin’s 32 native spring chinook populations that return to places like the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Loon Creek, the Grande Ronde River and the Imnaha River. Of those, 13 already meet the threshold and more will soon follow, according to the analysis.

“If you take that 19 percent rate of decline and say going forward, where does that put us, and project out for five years, you end up with 24 of the 31 populations being below 50 natural origin spawners by 2025,” he said.

Hesse analyzed 16 of the basin’s wild steelhead populations. The sea-run rainbow trout also listed as threatened under the ESA are doing better than chinook, but have declined rapidly during the past five years or so because of poor ocean conditions. The fish have posted a 10-year downward trend of 18 percent, nearly identical to the nosedive by spring and summer chinook.

That trend projected forward puts seven of the 16 native steelhead populations analyzed by the tribe, or 44 percent, below the quasi-extinction threshold by 2025. The slide for the big B-run steelhead cherished by anglers is steeper — more like 23 percent.

“Look at the population names at the very bottom,” Hesse said pointing to a graph charting the projected decline of steelhead. “The South Fork Salmon, South Fork Clearwater, Lolo Creek, Secesh River — those are all populations that are the B-run life history.”

Representatives from other agencies that manage salmon and steelhead in the basin praised the tribe’s work and said it signals the need for more conservation measures.

“If this isn’t a wake-up call, I’m not sure what folks would be looking for,” said Tucker Jones, ocean and salmon program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We think their analysis is cause for concern,” said Bill Tweit, special assistant in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fish Program.

“Anytime you have a total spawner abundance less than 50 fish, that really puts you in a bad spot,” said Lance Hebdon, anadromous fish manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, is in the midst of five-year, Endangered Species Act-mandated status reviews for spring chinook and steelhead. Chris Jordan, a scientist with the agency’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tribe’s work largely mirrors a viability assessment his shop is working on. While it’s not uncommon for populations to fluctuate, he said the latest downturn is worrying.

“What becomes more and more concerning as time goes on is if these populations don’t rebound from changes in the ocean.”

Michael Tehann, assistant regional administrator for NOAA fisheries, said while the data is concerning, the fish have displayed remarkable ability to bounce back from previous low abundance. He also said the agency is looking for additional measures to help the fish.

Earlier this year, scientists with the agency’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center published a paper projecting that climate change could cause already low survival rates for Snake River spring chinook to plummet by 90 percent and the fish could face extinction by 2060. The study, led by Lisa Crozier, said urgent actions are needed to counteract the fish-killing effects of warming oceans and reduced river flows brought on by climate change.

The tribe’s analysis included a chart of the downward trend predicted by the federal scientists with the addition of actual spring chinook returns from 2019 for reference. “So as grim as her (Crozier’s) projections look, we are saying we are already starting that decline and we are already there at the quasi-extinction threshold,” Hesse said. “I think it adds urgency that this is going to continue.”

Johnson and Hesse believe the same types of emergency actions deployed when Snake River spring chinook and steelhead were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s should be activated and be centered around maximizing fresh water survival and increasing genetic diversity. Actions that provide benefits to multiple populations, such as increasing spill at Snake and Columbia river dams, should be prioritized, and some that may not have proven benefits, such as reducing predatory birds or fish numbers, should be taken now rather than after years of study.

“We think it’s a call to alarm, that things aren’t normal and we better do some things that are different and, importantly, we better do some things in addition to what we are doing right now,” Johnson said. Some things the tribe is suggesting include establishing conservation hatchery programs below Bonneville Dam for some populations of chinook that return to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the Tucannon River. The mission of a conservation hatchery is to preserve imperiled fish rather than produce fish for harvest. In this case, chinook would be raised at the hatchery with the intent they would go to the ocean and return to the hatchery so their genetics would be preserved.

Other suggested actions include habitat work, such as removing boulders from a section of the South Fork of the Clearwater River that at high flows create a “velocity barrier” that keeps steelhead from reaching spawning streams.

Johnson said the tribe would be recommending such actions even if Simpson, a Republican Idaho congressman, was not proposing breaching the four lower Snake River dams. But dam removal is needed, Johnson said, given the dire prospects and that Idaho’s high-elevation spawning habitat is expected to remain viable even as temperatures rise.

“All of that country in the Salmon (River) and Clearwater (River basins) — that habitat there, that is the freaking future under a changing climate,” he said. “To address one of the issues of climate change, you would want to do something like breaching dams to at least have access to those areas.” Jones and Tweit also pointed to Simpson’s proposal as an important long-term potential mitigating action.

“Oregon has been pretty supportive of the concepts Congressman Simpson rolled out in February, if you are looking at long-term solutions,” Jones said.

“As we think about the Simpson proposal, I think it’s useful to have (the tribe’s) information at hand,” Tweit said.

In the near term, Jones said more water should be spilled at the dams, an action the tribe supports as well. Studies show spilling high volumes of water at the dams, 24 hours a day while juvenile fish are migrating seaward, can boost survival of the young fish. But spilling water means there is less available to generate electricity. The latest federal plan designed to mitigate harm caused by the Snake and Columbia rivers’ hydro system calls for water to be spilled 18 hours a day but to stop during times when energy demands are higher.

The tribe plans to present the analysis at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Wednesday, where it will solicit other ideas for mitigating actions.

“We do need to do something right away and we need to do some major things,” Johnson said.

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