Wild Salmon & Steelhead News is produced by the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition. Read on to learn about the Columbia-Snake River Basin’s endangered wild salmon and steelhead, the many benefits they deliver to the people and ecosystems, and the extinction crisis they face today; find out how we are working to restore health, connectivity and resilience to the rivers and streams they depend upon in the Columbia-Snake Basin and how you can get involved and help protect and restore healthy, abundant and fishable populations.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
1. Columbia-Snake Salmon Draft EIS public comment process closes - nearly 100,000 people submit comment!
2. Restoring the Klamath River and its endangered salmon by removing its four dams scheduled to begin in 2022!
3. Columbia-Snake River Salmon Returns: 2020 expected to be another grim year for endangered salmon and steelhead
4. Washington State makes a historic decision to protect Snake-Columbia salmon and steelhead from hot water
5. Restoring a River: the 'Snake River Vision Project'
6. #SOSArtworkChallenge winner: Jeremy Hitchcock
1. Columbia-Snake Salmon Draft EIS public comment process closes - nearly 100,000 people submit comments calling for a restored lower Snake River and community solutions
On Feb. 28, the federal agencies charged with recovering endangered Columbia-Snake salmon and steelhead populations released their long-awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and then held a 45-day comment period which closed on April 13. This EIS was ordered by U.S. District Court in 2016 when Judge Michael Simon invalidated the agencies’ last federal salmon plan as insufficient and in violation of the law.
Tragically, the Draft EIS fails Columbia-Snake salmon and the people of the Northwest and nation on both process and substance. Faced with an 8,000-page document, the onset of a global pandemic, and calls from salmon advocates and the region’s Tribes, governors and members of Congress, the federal government refused to extend its short, 45-day public comment period. Changing six scheduled public hearings to awkward, poorly attended tele-conference calls was their only modification. Despite the significant challenges, nearly 100,000 people – including many of you! – spoke up for restoring imperiled salmon and a freely flowing lower Snake River as part of a larger regional solution that supports a reliable and affordable energy system and healthy fishing and farming communities. Many organizations, states and Tribes also submitted detailed policy comments highlighting the DEIS’ many flaws.
For a fuller summary of the DEIS, the public comment process and a select list of detailed comments from Tribes, states, community organizations and others, visit SOS’ DEIS Resource page.
What’s next – a failed status quo or a new regional approach? On the one hand, the federally-led process continues to move forward. Here is what to expect from the federal agencies in 2020: a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in June, a “new” salmon plan (“Biological Opinion”) based on the FEIS in July, and the official adoption of this plan (“Record of Decision”) in September. Based on what we now know about the EIS, the federal government's status quo approach will almost certainly draw a new round of litigation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the opportunity today for a new approach that brings people together to rebuild Snake-Columbia salmon populations and invest in Northwest communities. The conversation in the Pacific Northwest is changing. Political leadership is emerging and new critical discussions between and among stakeholders and sovereigns have begun. Increasingly, Northwest governors and members of Congress acknowledge that a federally-led process will not deliver the solutions we need for endangered salmon and our communities. Save Our wild Salmon, for example, is among the organizations participating in discussions with other conservation groups and a set of leaders from the energy utility sector to explore our common ground and the potential for shared solutions. We're also talking with leaders from communities in the Snake River Basin. Other conversations are underway as well.
You can help support the emerging political and stakeholder leadership by contacting elected officials in the Northwest – governors and members of Congress. Urge them to advocate for real, lasting solutions for Snake-Columbia salmon and Northwest communities. Ask them to begin urgent work with other policymakers and regional stakeholders and sovereigns to develop a plan that recovers salmon and brings everyone forward together.
Here are a couple of recent media stories on the Draft EIS and the work by conservation and utility leaders:
Seattle Times: Guest Opinion: Guest Opinion: Electric utilities, conservation groups unite to seek solutions for Columbia River Basin dams (April 16)
2. Restoring the Klamath River and its endangered salmon by removing four dams scheduled to begin in 2022
The four dams on the Klamath River have blocked salmon and steelhead from accessing one of the West Coast’s largest salmon watersheds for almost one hundred years. Thanks to the hard work of Tribes, conservationists and fishermen, discussions about if and how to remove these four dams began in earnest in 2007, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) required PacifiCorp, the dams’ owners, to install fish passage systems for each of the dams in order to maintain their licenses and continue to operate them. Seeing the high cost of installing fish ladders and facing increased pressure from salmon restoration advocates - particularly the Yurok Tribe - PacifiCorp signed an agreement with the federal government and the states of California and Oregon calling for dam removal to begin in 2020. Despite a set of provisions to assist local communities make this transition, the process has been slowed - but not stopped - in recent years by a small number of irrigators and their supporters back in Washington D.C. who remain opposed to dam removal.
According to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, however, the historic restoration of the Klamath River is now currently slated to begin in 2022, 100 years after the completion of the first dam - COPCO - was constructed. This will be the largest dam removal project (so far!) in the United States. It will restore a free-flowing river and repair and reconnect imperiled salmon and steelhead and other native fishes to 450 miles of mainstem and tributary rivers and streams across the watershed. We’ll be sure to keep posted on new developments and additional progress.
Here are three links to recent media coverage and additional information:
CBS-KPIX: Plan to Demolish 4 Hydroelectric Dams on the Klamath River Stirs Debate (March 29)
Klamath River Renewal Corp website
E&E News: California greenlights massive Klamath River dam removal (April 9)
3. Columbia-Snake Salmon Returns: 2020 expected to be another grim year for endangered salmon and steelhead - spelling new trouble for Southern Resident orcas and Northwest fishing communities.
Fisheries managers in the Northwest predict another year of grim salmon and steelhead returns to the Columbia and Snake rivers for 2020. So far this year, spring chinook are trickling in at levels below these already low expectations. This is bad news for fishing communities and businesses whose livelihoods rely on healthy salmon and steelhead runs – and for critically endangered Southern Resident orcas that are struggling to survive and reproduce due to the lack of their main prey: chinook salmon.
According to the Seattle Times, the 2020 spring chinook forecast for the Columbia Basin is the lowest prediction in over twenty years – just 135,800 fish (down from 157,700 forecast in 2019 but up from an actual return last year of 109,808). Roughly 80 percent of these fish originate in hatcheries; just 20% are wild. Historically, 10-20 million wild salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia Basin every year. Populations today, however, are 1-3 percent these pre-dam levels.
These two graphs show actual returns (as of May 4) of spring chinook that have passed the Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River near Portland (OR) and those that have passed Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River near Clarkston (WA)/Lewiston (ID). Returns at both locations so far are well below the 10 year-average – just 23% at Bonneville Dam and just 5% (!!!!) at Lower Granite Dam. We won’t know for certain how bad the final returns will be but initial signs are alarming scientists, managers and fishermen.
On the Snake River specifically, managers forecasted 56,400 spring and summer chinook will return at least as far as the mouth of the Columbia River. This would be about 53 percent of the already low 10-year average. The forecast includes just 9,600 wild fish and 46,800 hatchery fish.
With regard to Snake River steelhead, the returns have not improved from a disastrous low in 2019. These fish overwintered along the lower Snake and Columbia and are now completing their spawning journey. Fish Passage Center reports that “daily adult steelhead counts at Lower Granite Dam ranged from 8 to 25 adults per day last week. This year’s Lower Granite Dam steelhead count of 2,080 is about 75% of the 2019 count of 2,782 and 29% of the 10-year average count of 7,264.” This is devastating news for fishing communities - as a fishing closure on the Clearwater River like the one Idaho enforced last year may be necessary again this year.
Snake River sockeye is one of the most endangered salmon populations anywhere on the West Coast. Just 81 Snake River sockeye passed Lower Granite Dam in 2019, and fisheries managers predict similar numbers this year as well. The vast majority of these fish are raised in hatcheries and released into rivers in Idaho in the spring. To learn more about Snake River sockeye, please read this essay by Pat Ford, SOS’ former executive director – The Naturals - Snake River Sockeye Salmon.
Here are several press links to further information on 2020 salmon returns. We’ll keep you posted in the months ahead as the actual returns occur.
4. Washington State makes historic decision to protect salmon and their community benefits from rising water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers
In an historic decision, Washington State will regulate the heat pollution impacts of eight federal dams/reservoirs on the lower Columbia and lower Snake rivers to help endangered salmon runs and the human communities and Southern Resident orcas that rely upon them. On May 7, 2020 for the first time, the Washington Dept. of Ecology exercised the state’s authority under Clean Water Act (Section 401) to help ensure the Columbia Basin’s federal dam operators address rising water temperatures. Governor Inslee and the Department of Ecology deserve high marks for this decision to protect salmon and other fish and wildlife species harmed by rising water temperatures. This decision by Washington State increases the pressure on a status quo that’s not working for salmon, orca or communities – and highlights the need for and benefits of restoring the lower Snake River through dam removal.
The federal dams create large reservoirs of slow-moving water that frequently gets too hot for salmon to survive. As our climate warms, so do rivers. Climate change and dams combine to warm the Columbia and Snake rivers to unsafe levels. During the summer, the rivers are frequently so warm that salmon are unable to migrate upriver to spawn. When river temperatures exceed 68 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time in the summer, salmon have difficulty migrating upstream and begin succumbing to stress and disease. According to the Fish Passage Center, an independent government agency, “under a climate change scenario, the long-recognized and largely unaddressed problem of high water temperatures in the [Columbia and Snake rivers] becomes an ever-increasing threat to the survival of salmon.”
The lower Snake River reservoirs today routinely rise above 68 degrees for 6 to 8 weeks in the summer. In an extreme event in 2015, low snowpack and high ambient air temperatures overheated the Columbia and Snake Rivers and killed more than 250,000 adult sockeye salmon as they returned from the Pacific Ocean in search of their spawning grounds. With a warming climate, these deadly high temperature events are becoming more common.
The two graphs below illustrate how a free flowing lower Snake River would dramatically reduce water temperatures in the summer months and deliver big benefits to salmon and steelhead populations. The graph on the left reflects sustained, harmful high river temperatures - well above 68 degrees (F) - in the four reservoirs on the lower Snake River from July through September 2015. The graph on the right shows what scientists' models predict temperatures would look like with a freely flowing lower Snake River - with only occasional, short-term spikes above 68 degrees.
Columbia Riverkeeper deserves our thanks! Until now, the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have never been required to obtain water quality certifications under the Clean Water Act — leaving Washington without authority to protect its own water quality and fisheries. This new development in Washington Stated can be traced to a 2013 lawsuit by SOS member group Columbia Riverkeeper requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to obtain water pollution permits from the EPA. For decades, the Army Corps has violated state and federal laws, releasing heat pollution into the Columbia and Snake rivers. Now this should change.
Washington State's decision to use its legal authority to require the federal agencies to address rising water temperatures is a huge win for struggling salmon populations, endangered Southern Resident orcas that rely on chinook salmon for survival, and coastal and inland fishing communities to support businesses and livelihoods. And despite the steep declines in recent decades, salmon biologists view the Columbia-Snake Basin as the best chinook salmon restoration opportunity anywhere on the West Coast.
This is a continuing story and we'll keep you posted as it progresses.
5. Restoring a River: the 'Snake River Vision Project' - An ongoing series exploring places, history and the future of the lower Snake River. By Sam Mace, SOS Inland Northwest Director
Photo: Swim beach on the lower Snake River, Clarkston, WA (pre-1975)
Prior to the building of lower Granite dam, a wide, beautiful swim beach graced the Washington side of the Snake River, not far upstream from where the Clearwater River joins it. For decades, locals congregated with family and friends for beach-lounging and swimming on hot summer days. People would even come from other towns to enjoy the large beach built from the sand flowing down from thousands of miles of free-flowing river system upstream.
In the 1940s my father was stationed in Walla Walla, WA for flight training as a young Air Force recruit. When, many years later, I began spending more time in the Lewiston-Clarkston valley working with locals on salmon and steelhead recovery, my Dad shared stories of his time in Lewiston during the 40s. Because Walla Walla was a dry county (ironic considering what it’s known for today!), my Dad and his buddies would head over to Lewiston to hit the bars and have some fun, including, I now suspect, meet lovely ladies at the Clarkston swim beach.
The week he died at age 90 I was flipping through photo albums with my mother. I stopped at a newspaper clipping I’d not seen in a long time, a photo of my dad in his 20s, jet black curly hair, sitting on a beach with friends, ice cream cones in hand. I’d always assumed it was taken in southern CA where my Dad had gone to college. I looked more closely and peeled back the yellowed newsprint. Sure enough, there was an ad for an “Inland Empire” business. It was the Clarkston swim beach!
Lower Granite Dam reservoir inundated the beach in 1975. All that is left today is a tiny remnant beach and a Army Corps park upstream. But the stagnant water is not nearly as inviting as it once was. Swim closures are not uncommon in the summer when fecal coliform contamination makes it unsafe to swim in the warm, slow-moving reservoir.
With a restored river and city waterfront, could we revive the Clarkston swim beach? It would be one more highlight of a free-flowing river running through two small cities - providing a unique waterfront and recreation for residents and visitors alike. While some recreation would change, boating, swimming, fishing, and riverfront walking and biking could all be enhanced. Old-timers tell me they even water-skied on the free-flowing Snake.
Our understanding of what the river once looked like can help us envision what the river can be once again. Do you have stories and photos you are willing to share of spending time on the free-flowing Snake River? Email Sam Mace at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. #SOSArtworkChallenge winner: Jeremy Hitchcock!
Congratulations to Jeremy Hitchcock, an artist from Poulsbo, Washington for his winning submission to our first #SOSArtworkChallenge. A former captain of the University of Hawaii sailing team and a whitewater rafting guide for Orion Expeditions, Jeremy is at home on the water. He likes to show the interconnected nature of marine ecosystems through his drawings. Find his work on instagram @jhitchcock_art