Jim Martin, Rod Sando, Doug DeHart, Dan Diggs, Bill Shake and Don Swartz
August 22, 2020
Upon release of the final environmental impact statement for the Columbia River hydrosystem, I’ve been reflecting on the urgency of the issue surrounding endangered Columbia River salmon and steelhead with a cadre of career fishery scientists. Together, we have a combined 260 years of experience working to recover fish in this river system.
In the 1990s, some of us served on a team of biologists representing Oregon in negotiations with the federal agencies that manage the Columbia River hydrosystem: Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries, to correct a series of illegal and ineffective biological opinions, at the direction of the court. Each time, these agencies introduced suites of measures designed to tinker around the edge of the salmon survival problem without causing much disruption to the economic benefits the hydrosystem provides.
But the problem is that not enough was done to improve survival for salmon. For the last 50 years, we have been losing time and options as the plight of salmon and the orca whales that depend on them has grown increasingly dire. We have systematically sacrificed the promises made to the treaty and non-treaty fishermen when the dams were built and doubled down on those tradeoffs when the Endangered Species Act was invoked.
In the newest biological opinion, which the court provided an additional five years to be developed, we see another suite of measures that lack the strength to turn around the demise of the salmon and orcas. The agencies have proposed another suite of measures that jeopardize the salmon that are the heart of the promises in the Native American treaties. As the plight of the salmon grows more and more dire, more drastic measures will be required to recover salmon because the delay and obfuscation process has used up much of our lead time. Now, we have to take strong action to recover salmon, including decommissioning the four lower Snake River Dams and increasing spill at the remaining dams on the mainstem Columbia River.
Time has shown that investing ratepayer and taxpayer money in tributary fish habitat improvement, while helpful, is not powerful enough to offset the damage that the mainstem dams are inflicting on the salmon. It is easy to point to ocean conditions and predators as the culprit, but wild Upper Columbia River salmon populations continue to decline, steadily marching toward extinction. The increasing population of the Pacific Northwest and the associated development of our watersheds, as well as the human-caused shift in climate are all signs that salmon will have a tougher time in the future than in the past. For salmon and salmon-dependent orcas to survive, and for our promises to Native Americans to be kept, science shows that we must implement stronger survival measures, not weaker ones.
The “Lords of Yesterday” want a few more years of status quo management on the Columbia River. They may well offer measures that are long on study and short on salmon survival. That has been the track record for the last 50 years and it will continue as long as the court and our elected leaders allow it. We are nearing the point where we will purposely allow these salmon and orcas to go extinct and instead of acknowledging our role in that extinction, we will blame the weather. We have a responsibility to tribes to honor the promises we made in the 1850s. This is a time of moral decision as well as scientific strategy. We are convinced that the federal agencies should be relieved of duty as a result of their failure to save these salmon. We are out of time. We cannot afford more foot dragging and delays.
The court should create a continuing jurisdiction and requiring that power sales and dam operations be consistent with measures that are strong enough to save these salmon — measures that can build from Oregon’s state-level leadership on this issue. Anything less will be writing the history of this shameful failure to live within the law and to honor our promises as a people.
The time for decision is now — we can’t delay. How will we explain our role in salmon extinction to our grandchildren?
The authors of this piece are Jim Martin, Rod Sando, Doug DeHart, Dan Diggs, Bill Shake and Don Swartz.