Slide background

Restoring the Lower Snake River

LMTBy Marty Trillhaase

Oct 30, 2017

For the better part of a decade, the paradigm seemed to be fish and dams.

You could have both salmon and steelhead runs while maintaining the four dams along lower Snake River.

Not everyone agreed, of course. Fish biologists pointed to a frustratingly inadequate 0.9 percent smolt-to-adult wild fish return rate during the past decade in places such as the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, where the habitat could not be any more pristine. That's at least a quarter of the SAR needed for the fish runs to begin growing again. Even when mitigation efforts and environmental conditions produced a 2 percent SAR in some runs, it was barely sufficient.

Meanwhile billions of ratepayer dollars were allocated toward fish preservation while one mitigation plan after another was tossed aside by the federal courts. The latest is due next year.

But ambitious hatchery programs, habitat restoration and harvest limits were credited with producing sizeable fish runs and fishing seasons, You got a cushy feeling that if the fish weren't necessarily thriving, they at least were holding their own. Who in his right mind would demand something as drastic as breaching dams while holding a fishing pole on the Snake or Clearwater?

Lurking beneath all this, however, was the troubling question: Was the abundance the result of enlightened human intervention - or simply good luck? Coinciding with the tide of fish were favorable conditions in the ocean and/or the Columbia-Snake rivers?

"This is like a big slot machine," Eagle-based fisheries scientist Rick Williams told the Tribune's Eric Barker. " When it comes up all sevens or cherries, everything works, but how often can you count on that? At the other end, there is the possibility of coming up with all Xs."

As Barker noted in last Sunday's Tribune:

The northern Pacific Ocean has cycled into a bad spell. Between 2013 and 2015, the "blob" parked its warm water off the West Coast - depriving fish of food while exposing them to more predators.

At about the same time, the rivers turned hostile. Warm and dry winters hampered spring runoff. Scorching summers drove water temperatures beyond the tolerance level of returning fish.

Climate change - what fisheries biologist Don Chapman called "the fifth horseman of the apocalypse" - is changing the band of ocean conditions. The good times won't be as good; the bad times get even worse.

Hatchery fish returns in 2017 have plummeted. Spring and summer chinook fishing seasons were curtailed; steelhead anglers narrowly avoiding a catch-and-release only season. Protected wild fish numbers are even lower.

Which leads to the inevitable question: Were the fish advocates right? Is it a choice between maintaining the four lower Snake River dams or the fish?

Unfortunately, you're dealing with biology, not math. It's not binary. Ambiguities abound.

By the time that question squarely confronts the Pacific Northwest, the evidence will be fish numbers so low that the species can not reproduce - what biologists call an extinction vortex. But engineering is not ambiguous. It is binary.

If you can't ship goods on the river, resort to more surface transportation.

Electricity generated by hydropower can be replaced.

If the pool of irrigation water is lower, rely on more powerful pumps and longer intake pipes.

But other than in the imagination of Michael Crichton, it is beyond humanity's ability to restore a species back from extinction.

Maybe the picture is not as grave as it appears. But the flashing warning lights seem brighter.

For two generations, this region has been torn between slackwater's benefits and costs. However much you don't like the choice, it's staring you in the face - and the time to make it is running short. - M.T.

Share This