By Jim Jones
January 26, 2020
Shortly after taking office as Idaho attorney general in January 1983, I took a crash course in the life-and-death struggles of Idaho’s anadromous fish. The U.S. Supreme Court set oral argument that March for a case filed years earlier by a prior AG, Wayne Kidwell. The lawsuit was against Oregon and Washington, claiming the down-streamers were overfishing salmon and steelhead runs. Idaho sought an allocation of the fish runs.
I arrived in Washington two weeks ahead of the argument with about 20 banker boxes of records from the trial. My study of the records included the life cycle of every run, the upstream and downstream mortality of each run at each of the eight dams (four Columbia and four lower Snake), habitat issues, the fish taken in the two rivers and the Pacific by all types of fishers, and practically every other factor affecting the survival or mortality of these remarkable fish.
The one thing that really struck me during my preparation for the argument was the devastating toll the dams took on the smolts during their downstream journey. It was almost beyond comprehension that such large numbers would get minced by the dam turbines, perish in the slack waters behind the dams or otherwise succumb to dam-related stress. Overcoming the dangers posed by the dams was obviously the key to survival.
The argument went fairly well, but the outcome was not ideal. On the plus side, the Court ruled that each state was entitled to an equitable share of the fish and that each had a responsibility to conserve and augment the resource. On the other side, six of the nine justices declined to set an allocation formula, according to Idaho ex rel. Evans v. Oregon, 462 U.S. 1017 (1983).
The case gave me an appreciation of these magnificent creatures and a strong commitment to do everything possible to protect and enhance their runs. It is hard to comprehend the strength and tenacity of these fish — fighting their way through hundreds of miles of rushing and cascading waters to regenerate their species and then die.
In the ensuing years, every conceivable measure has been tried to reduce mortality at the Snake dams — trucking or barging around the dams, spilling over or around them, whatever — but nothing has really worked. Some solutions increased survival on the journey to the Pacific, but it was found that large numbers of those fish suffered delayed mortality from the stress.
Despite the expenditure of about $17 billion, there has been little success in regenerating the wild fish runs. Of 100 smolts heading downstream, only one can be expected to make it back to its spawning grounds. The recovery target is 4 percent, and the minimum is 2 percent. The draft Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Engagement Report released by the state of Washington in December estimates that the recovery target can be achieved by breaching the four lower Snake dams and increasing the spill level at the four lower Columbia dams.
A long-time observer of this drama, Rocky Barker, noted in an Idaho Statesman article, “Researchers have offered ways to save salmon runs for decades. Will new leaders listen?” last May that the solution to the problem is the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. Instead of trying to figure out a way to get the fish safely around, through or over the dams, just punch through the dams.
It has taken me a while to conclude that this is the way to go. Other solutions can be figured out for getting grain to market, producing power and the like. But restoring this stretch of the Snake to its pre-dam condition is the only feasible way in my mind to safely flush the smolts to the Columbia. I would not support breaching if it would endanger Idaho’s control over its water. It will not.
With the increasing temperature of both the Pacific and the two rivers, the survival of anadromous fish runs has been made even more precarious. They might have a fighting chance if we can remove the main barrier to their continued existence. If the Snake dams stay intact, the salmon and steelhead won’t be around much longer. The Supreme Court indicated we have a responsibility to conserve and augment this valuable resource. Let’s do it.
Jim Jones is the former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court. Jim Jones’ previous columns can be found at https://JJCommonTater.com.