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Restoring the Lower Snake River

salmonSeptember 29, 2017

RE: CBB, Sept. 1. 2017, “Fish Managers: Low Steelhead Returns Likely Result Of 2015 Juvenile Fish Hitting Warm Ocean”
FR: Tom Stuart, Boise, ID

A recent CBB article ( wrote of a Northwest Power and Conservation Council meeting in which fish managers said that the primary cause of this year’s 40-year low in some salmon and steelhead returns, especially in the Snake River Basin, was ocean conditions - specifically, “a Blob” of hot water offshore. WDFW’s Dan Rawding was quoted:

“While it’s impossible to blame the poor return on any specific factor, the phenomenon known as “Blob,” a vast area of unusually warm water in the north Pacific Ocean that persisted for several years until 2015, may be the chief culprit,” Dan Rawding of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Council.

“I’m not saying the ocean is solely to blame, but we know temperature caused a dramatic shift in the North Pacific ecosystem,” Rawding said. “We think a lot of our poor returns in 2017 are due to the impact of the Blob in 2015,” pointing to very low smolt to adult returns for fish that entered the ocean in 2015.

Salmon managers ought not go too far in this direction. While ocean conditions are certainly a factor in salmon life-cycle survival, we must not forget that salmon and steelhead spend about half their lives in freshwater, where salmon policies and actions have long been negligent, insufficient, and illegal. NOAA weather experts predict that the ocean will not improve significantly anytime soon. Consequently, while we watch the ocean, the need for stronger freshwater policy and action is immediate - and compelling.

Whether the ocean is good or bad, Snake/Columbia dams and reservoirs are still whacking salmon and steelhead in freshwater, both juveniles and adults, in their migration to and from the Pacific. Juveniles outbound from up-basin watersheds like the Snake River suffer enormous losses. Despite the federal claims of a “97 percent dam passage survival rate”, the cumulative survival of Snake River juveniles after passing eight FCRPS dams and reservoirs is 50 percent or less in most years. And, the 50 percent that survive include many fish that are stressed or injured due to non-lethal dam/reservoir impacts. Those that survive to adulthood at sea start back upriver to find overheated slackwater that can weaken and kill even more of them.

Ocean conditions have nothing to do with these problems. When and if “the Blob” goes away, these terrible conditions for salmon in freshwater will still exist.

As we wait for better ocean conditions, we must solve two problems in freshwater: 1) the FCRPS must be reconfigured to dramatically improve the life-cycle survival of upriver stocks, especially in the Snake River basin; and 2) the reconfiguration must allow for effective strategies to ameliorate chronically high water temperatures in the Snake/Columbia mainstem.

The already lethal effects of FCRPS dams and reservoirs are now being intensified by a warming climate. Water temperatures in reservoirs behind Lower Snake River dams climb above – often well above - 68 degrees F, every summer, for weeks on end – adding 4-5 degrees overall to the mainstem temperature profile. As many know, water temps above 68 degrees begin to harm and kill salmon and steelhead, and the hot water flowing from Snake reservoirs pushes the lethal impacts into the lower Columbia. In 2015, 95 percent of adult Snake River sockeye died between Bonneville and Lower Granite. This year, despite delayed heating from a strong, cool spring runoff, water temperatures have been well over 68 degrees for weeks. Fish are dying; the Snake River’s 2017 steelhead return is at an all-time low.

If we are lucky, the “Blob” will go away, eventually. When that happens, will freshwater conditions be any better? Current trends are not encouraging. And, because of poor returns in 2015 and again this year, several populations are likely to remain dangerously depressed for years.

If we merely hope that an eventual improvement in ocean conditions will somehow cover for inadequate FCRPS management and hot reservoirs, or if we point to “the Blob” when salmon are not surviving the FCRPS experience well enough, ratepayer and taxpayer dollars will continue to be wasted. We will also fail to protect Snake/Columbia salmon and steelhead from extinction.

Tom Stuart, Boise

Save our Wild Salmon Coalition

Idaho Rivers United

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