September 1, 2019
By David Neiwert
The river, I thought, looked like you could walk across it, there were so many fish. It was a wide and shallow stretch, the kind that salmon like to use as spawning beds, and it was positively alive with hundreds, maybe thousands of thrashing salmon.
To my five-year-old eyes, the sight of the returning salmon along the headwaters of the Salmon River in the early 1960s was so awesome it has been burned into my memory since. My granddad Mel had taken us to visit his favorite fishing holes in the Stanley Basin, but we weren’t catching many of the cutthroat we usually came for, because the salmon were crowding everything out, it seemed.
I’ll never forget what the fish looked like, either: Hook-jawed and fierce, some of them (the sockeye) flaming red, and huge. It confused me at that age that we couldn’t catch and eat these giant fish, but my dad explained to me that their meat was soft and almost inedible by the time they reached the spawning beds. All of them were scarred and battered, the results of their thousand-mile journey from the ocean.
By the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, most of the big spawning runs had dwindled to a few dozen. By 1992, when only a single spawning sockeye—dubbed “Lonesome Larry”—returned to the Stanley Basin, those runs had simply vanished. Gone, too, were the throngs of native cutthroat my granddad had loved to catch, because when the proteins that the salmon brought up to the Sawtooths from the ocean stopped arriving, the entire native ecosystem there collapsed.
There were a number of causes for the runs’ decimation, including overall declines in fish habitat and commercial overharvest, but one loomed above them all: the construction of four dams—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite—on the Snake River between Lewiston, Idaho, and Richland, Washington. They were built in the late 1950s and continuing up through 1970, at the height of the Northwest’s dam-building mania, when they were still largely viewed as unalloyed assets for the region. These four dams were largely the brainchild of chamber-of-commerce promoters from Lewiston, who envisioned creating the world’s most inland seaport in their city and campaigned for the idea for nearly two decades before the dams were finally built.
That, in fact, is the main benefit of these dams: barging traffic. By creating four navigable slackwater reservoirs up to Lewiston, barges became capable of moving grain and other goods downstream to Portland at what were then cheaper rates compared to rail or truck shipping.
Because they are relatively shallow dams with little water behind them (in the hydroelectric business, they are called “run of the river” dams), their ability to produce electricity was always limited. At best, they have only produced a small fraction of the region’s electricity, and currently only contribute about 3-4% of the total Northwest energy grid.
The dams quickly proved to be salmon killers too, as fishermen in the Stanley Basin could attest. Fish ladders were installed when the dams were built that enabled salmon to return upstream, though over the years these required improvements as they proved less than effective in their supposed purpose; but the downstream trip for young smolt making their way to the ocean proved to be the truly lethal component of their migration, since the reservoirs created flatwater that stopped the smolt in their downstream track (scientists have since ascertained that they need free-flowing rivers to effectively get to the ocean), and the few smolt who did make it past them were often ground into fish meal by the dams’ turbines as they passed through them.
The Snake River salmon numbers crashed so precipitously that, shortly after the “Lonesome Larry” episode, federal officials began the process of listing the four key salmon runs under the Endangered Species Act; Snake River Chinook and sockeye were both listed by 1995. That’s about the same time that salmon scientists and environmental advocates began talking about the eventual need to remove the four dams.
That created a huge political backlash in eastern Washington, whipped up by politicians and radio talk-show hosts. When the breaching was first proposed in 1999, pro-dam rallies were held in various communities at which the rhetoric became high-pitched. Leading the way were top Republican officials, including then-Senator Slade Gorton, who warned of various miseries that breaching would inflict, and smeared the plans as an attack on “our way of life.”
“We are not going to allow a few Seattle ultraliberal environmental zealots to destroy what took generations to build,” said Republican state Senator Dan McDonald, of Bellevue, at a Richland gathering in 2000.
“In case you don’t understand the urgency of this, think about this: The bulldozers are coming,” said Republican Representative Shirley Hankins, of Richland at the same rally. “The gun is at our heads, and we need to act right now before they pull the trigger.”
The bulldozers never came. The furor instead gave ammunition for the federal agencies that maintain the dams and who have ardently defended them since their construction—the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration—to sustain their existence in the face of mounting costs and shifting economics. They began mitigation efforts to save the smolt by collecting them as they came downriver, loading them onto barges, and then taking them downstream past the Columbia dams and releasing them, an extremely expensive effort that cost millions annually, and proved to have little effect.
What did follow, however, were multiple lawsuits demanding that the Corps and the BPA adhere to the letter of the Endangered Species Act—and in the courts, at least, the salmon advocates proved to have the science and the law on their side. A 2003 ruling by a federal judge, James Redden, knocked down the Bush administration’s plans to maintain the status quo on the dams. In 2005, after continuing declines, Redden ordered the BPA to begin spilling water over the dams at key times of year to help the smolt migrate downstream on their own.
As it happened, 2005 was the year that the National Marine Fisheries Service officially listed the Southern Resident killer whale as endangered. And suddenly, the whole picture became even more complicated.
It seems counterintuitive to think that the endangered Puget Sound orcas’ fate could ultimately depend on some earthen dams far away, deep inland. To understand the larger dynamic, you have to take into account how these killer whales feed year-round.
The scientists who study them have found that during the summer months, especially in July and August, the Southern Residents feed primarily on Chinook from the Fraser River, the large British Columbia waterway whose delta is just south of Vancouver, which is why they come inland to feed in the Salish Sea. But the rest of the year, especially during the winter months, these orcas roam the Continental Shelf dozens of miles off the Pacific Coast and hundreds of miles along it. During those months, they feed off all the available Chinook along the shelf, but the majority of those salmon, the ones they prefer to target even as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands, come from the Columbia River.
NOAA scientists have been working hard to try to figure out which river systems the whales mostly feed from in the wintertime, because they need the scientific data in hand before they can begin to establish the mouths of these rivers as the orcas’ critical habitat in the wintertime, the first step in any federally funded recovery program. NOAA Northwest’s chief whale scientist, Brad Hanson, first collected a handful of fish scales from an orca feeding at the mouth of the Columbia in 2010, and then in 2012 began a program of darting Southern Resident orcas with satellite tags that, in some instances, remained functional for several weeks, giving the researchers a wealth of data about the orcas’ feeding habits for the past three winters. It ended with the death of the young male infected by a dart in 2016.
Columbia Chinook runs generally (and the Snake River runs especially) have been listed as either threatened or endangered since the 1990s, and their future looks precarious at best. Recent bouts of high summer temperatures in the river water (which is worsened by the four Lower Snake Dams) have killed thousands of sockeye attempting to return up the river, and similarly threaten the future of the runs’ remaining wild stocks, which are essential for their long-term well-being.
The reason the Snake River system is so promising when it comes to Chinook recovery lies in what is behind those four dams at its lowest reaches: for hundreds of miles beyond them, the river and its arms continue into pristine wilderness, primarily the 425-mile-long Salmon River, which winds its way through the massive Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness before reaching its headwaters in the protected Stanley Basin. It is prime salmon habitat that, before the dams arrived, produced salmon by the hundreds of thousands. The promise of salmon recovery in that kind of habitat is extremely high.
So the orca scientists are able to make a powerful case that, when it comes to recovering the Southern Residents’ critical habitat in the wintertime, the most logical target is not just the Columbia, but the Snake River system particularly. It offers the most bang for the buck when it comes to providing the whales with at least enough fish in the short term to sustain them and perhaps begin a recovery.
A recent ruling by yet another federal judge, Michael Simon, made clear that the BPA’s efforts for restoring salmon to the Columbia were still woefully inadequate, and it recommended the administration to return to considering taking out the four Lower Snake dams. The agencies that operate the dams have now initiated a series of public hearings on the issue, the first stop in a long process that likely means dam removal will be years still down the road. Meanwhile, the state’s political leaders—especially Sen. Patty Murray, who has shunned multiple requests from dam-removal advocates for a face-to-face meeting—have mostly remained hunkered down on the issue, fearful of stirring up the culture-war hornet’s nest that awaits them on the eastern side of the state.
And it remains potent. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane-area Republican best known as a key congressional ally of President Trump, earlier this year successfully drummed up support for legislation that essentially would have rendered the dams a permanent fixture, immune even to court edicts. The bill, H.R. 3144, passed the House, but died in the Senate.
The Orca Recovery Task Force, however, has opened a window of opportunity by including dam removal discussions as a key component of its second round of discussions this year.
Unsurprisingly, that has in turn sparked a fresh round of claims that heedless Seattle liberals are trying to destroy eastern Washington farmers’ way of life.
The facts on the ground have shifted dramatically, however. Due to rising fuel costs, barging is no longer the more economical means for farmers to get their grain to market that it once was, and the large majority of eastern Washington farmers are now using rail lines for transport. And the small portion of electricity that the dams produce is actually part of a power-oversupply problem in the Northwest, where there’s an annual surplus of about 16% of power production that costs ratepayers by reducing demand while also crowding out wind and solar energy as it comes online. The old arguments defending the dams have largely evaporated, while the need for their removal, in a biological sense, has become profound.
Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps of Engineers official from the Walla Walla district that oversees the four dams, has been arguing forcefully for the past couple of years that not only are the dams a boondoggle that wastes taxpayers’ money and needlessly destroy salmon, but that the means exists for the Corps to begin tearing the dams down as soon as this year.
Waddell was part of the Corps team that wrote its 2002 (and still operative) Environmental Impact Statement on the dams, and he delights in pointing out that dam breaching is included as one of the viable options in it if the salmon-mitigation efforts it lists failed to recover the endangered runs—as they have. Waddell also makes a powerful case that the dams cost taxpayers in excess of $170 million annually, with an investment return of 15 cents on the dollar.
The wave of bad news for the Southern Residents over the summer added more fuel to the case for dam removal. And indeed, the offices of Gov. Inslee, as well as Murray and her fellow Democratic senator, Maria Cantwell, were inundated with calls from angry constituents demanding action, and frequently demanding the dams be taken down.
National Marine Fisheries Service officials held a series of meetings last winter in Friday Harbor and Seattle intended to ameliorate and perhaps address the raw anger in the communities over the deaths, first, of J-35’s calf and its subsequent remonstrative display by her grieving mother, and then more recently the loss of J-50, aka Scarlett, the spunky little four-year-old.
The meetings simmered with resentment as hundreds turn out to voice their frustration. Many vented their anger: “You have done nothing! Nothing!” shouted one resident to the silent panel of scientist bureaucrats seated at the front of the room. “It’s time to stop playing politics!”
The orcas’ human advocates are not giving up, but they believe the picture has become grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” says Deborah Giles of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs. “We’ve gone backwards.”
“They were declared endangered in 2005,” Ken Balcomb, chief scientist of the Friday Harbor-based Center for Whale Research, reminded the NOAA panel. “And fifty-one animals have died since then.
“These babies that we see dying now are probably the most dramatic. They’re probably the most media-savvy. They’re telling us something: We’ve got to do something NOW about restoring wild salmon.”
Earlier this summer, the nonpartisan think tank ECONorthwest published a study examining the pros and cons of removing the four Lower Snake River dam, concluding that “society will incur some costs from dam removal due to lost barge transportation and effects on grid services, but the public benefits relative to costs strongly justify removing the Lower Snake River Dams. In other words, the benefits of dam removal are large enough to fully compensate individuals or industries that could experience costs if the dams are removed.”
Especially damning were the portions of the study that examined barging on the river: It showed the federal government’s subsidies for the lock system far exceed in federal costs what the public gets in return.
Local Republicans jumped to denounce the study: "This privately-funded study is a slap in the face of our state's agricultural economy,” a joint statement from McMorris Rodgers and Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse read. “It is another example of Seattle-based interests failing to understand our way of life in Central and Eastern Washington.”
However, one glimmer of political hope has turned up from an unexpected source: Conservative Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho—who has his own memories of seeing salmon spawn in Idaho rivers—has recently begun denouncing the federal inaction on the state’s diminishing salmon runs, arguing for serious consideration of the dams’ removal. Simpson says he wants to see the runs recovered in his lifetime.
“We need to stop thinking about what currently exists and ask ourselves, ‘What do we want the Northwest to look like in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years?’ ” Simpson told a Boise gathering aimed at addressing the salmon problems. Among his likely backers on the discussions are Idaho’s Native American tribes.
A Christian Science Monitor piece noted that Simpson’s approach is based on economic realities—particularly the fact that hydropower no longer is the lowest-cost energy option for Northwest utilities.
“There is a new fact on the field,” Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League remarked to the Monitor, adding that as the discussion moves forward, “for the first time in many years I feel like we have a hopeful chance of saving salmon for future generations.”