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Letters from the West

As runs dwindle, experts say Idaho’s salmon, steelhead ‘could be gone in a generation’


20 years later, Idaho's salmon are still in danger of disappearing forever

The salmon of the Northwest are the stuff of legends. Pioneers talked of rivers so thick that they were tempted to cross on the backs of the fish. But times have changed, the fish's numbers have plunged, and 13 species were placed on the endangered species list by 1995. Climate change and our network of hydropower dams have helped thwart attempts so far to find a sustainable solution. And it's possible some of our strategies - including our reliance on hatcheries - have backfired.


The number of spring chinook salmon that have made it from the ocean to the first dam on the Columbia is at a low not seen since the 1990s. Biologists worry that recently abundant salmon runs are at risk again, with changing Pacific ocean conditions, low water in 2015 and other factors. Will salmon return to the brink of extinction, or can steps taken in the past decade sustain fish in the face of a warming climate?

There still is no sustainable plan for saving salmon, and the changing climate will put even more stress on remaining fish stocks.

The connection between saving salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers and preserving killer whales in Washington state and British Columbia is bringing together advocates of both imperiled species, who want to see four Snake River dams in Washington removed.

Changes to the U.S. electric grid would be revolutionary for the economy, energy market, the Columbia Basin dam system and the Idaho salmon that migrate through it.

A small group of Washington irrigation farmers have a large economic impact along the Snake, along with a skyrocketing wine industry.

Idaho Power must resolve a dispute between Idaho and Oregon and Northwest tribes over fish passage if it is to get a new license for its Hells Canyon complex of three dams.

Hatcheries & a focus on raising fish to eat may have helped put salmon on edge of extinction — like steelhead, prized trophy of Idaho salmon anglers.

If you want a example of what removing the Snake River dams can do, the chinook in Marsh Creek have provide a preview along with their cautionary tale.

Climate change adds another stress to the Northwest salmon and steelhead that have been beaten back with dams, fishing nets, hooks, pollution and development for 150 years. The region got a preview of how bad it can be by the summer of 2015 when hotter temperatures killed millions of fish.

Research, advocacy and $16 billion lifted Columbia and Snake salmon from the brink of extinction. We don’t have a sustainable plan to save the fish.

If BPA can’t find way to save endangered salmon, agency set up by Franklin Roosevelt to bring power to Pacific Northwest may not survive.

For the third year in a row, biologists predict that Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs will be very low in 2019, and many tributaries might see few if any returning spawners.

Warm waters in the Pacific Ocean have hurt all salmon runs across the Pacific Northwest since 2014. But Idaho’s fish, especially steelhead — which have to go over eight dams on their trip to the sea as juveniles — are facing the biggest problem.

“If we don’t take bold action, Idaho’s salmon and steelhead could be gone in a generation,” said Justin Hayes, Idaho Conservation League program director.

Click to resize

That action may start with a landmark agreement made in December to change the way the dams are operated to improve migration for young salmon carried by the spring runoff to the Pacific. Under that agreement, Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe agreed to stay out of federal court for the next three years. In exchange, federal dam managers agreed to increase the amount of water diverted away from hydroelectric turbines over dam spillways to reduce the number of salmon that die in the dams and right afterward.

“Our hope is that this agreement can serve as a model for the kind of collaboration, trust building, creativity and innovation that will be necessary to bring the region together around a sustainable path forward for the Columbia River Power System,” said Elliot Mainzer, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets power from the federal dams.

The agreement benefits Mainzer’s millions of electric customers across the states of Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana by allowing it to run more water through hydroelectric turbines when the price and demand for electricity is high. He and representatives of the tribes, the states and other federal agencies briefed the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council on Wednesday.

“This means we’ll be able to invest more in fish when power production is not as profitable,” said Ed Bowles, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish division administrator. “Bonneville can invest more in power when it’s more profitable.”

Another poor year

Less than half of the 10-year average of spring chinook salmon are forecast to return this year to Bonneville Dam, the first dam adults encounter after they enter the Columbia River. State and federal biologists predict that only 99,000 will make it, compared with the 10-year average of 198,000.

The forecast for the endangered Snake River spring and summer chinook that spawn in the high country of Idaho is even worse. Only 8,200 wild chinook are expected to make it back to tributaries as far as 800 miles from the Pacific and up to 6,500 feet above sea level to spawn and die.

Last year biologists forecast that 18,500 wild chinook would return, but only 11,339 arrived. As bad as those numbers are, they are not as low as the 1990s. That’s when salmon faced similar poor ocean conditions, such as reduced food and increased predators in warmer waters.

“The question is: Is this as bad as the mid-1990s, when we had five solid years of low returns?” said Lance Hebdon, Idaho Department of Fish and Game salmon and steelhead fishery manager.

The answer, he said, is no — so far. He and other fisheries managers have some hope.

Temperatures in the Pacific from 2014 to 2017 were among the warmest ever recorded, making the ocean less productive for salmon. Those conditions have improved, Hebdon said.

But the long-term trend for wild salmon and steelhead since the 1960s has continued to drop.

Hebdon said that “2018 was about as bad of a steelhead year as we’ve ever had.”

Biologists predict that about 40,000 hatchery chinook will return to the Snake River this spring, which is what allows anglers to fish and allows river towns such as Riggins to benefit. That’s also down from 2018, when 56,000 returned — half the number that returned in 2014.

A long struggle

Since salmon and steelhead were designated as threatened and endangered in the Columbia and Snake watersheds in the early 1990s, federal judges have repeatedly ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power to take greater action to offset the killing of salmon in the dams. In response, Bonneville Power and its customers have paid more than $16 billion for dam improvements, habitat restoration and other measures.

In 2014, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered the agencies to conduct a new environmental review and write a new biological opinion on the effects of the dams. He expressed frustration that since Idaho’s lawsuit against the dam plans in 1993, the agencies had four times “ignored the admonishments of Judge (Malcolm) Marsh and Judge (James) Redden to consider more aggressive changes ... to save the imperiled listed species.”

He ordered the agencies to study breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington and to increase the amount of flows they spill over the dams to improve migration. His orders are based on data collected by the Fish Passage Center, a team of biologists funded by Bonneville, which shows that if dam managers simply allow as much water as possible to spill over the dams — rather than pass through hydroelectric turbines — Snake River Basin salmon returns will grow by 100 percent to 300 percent.

Even more would survive if the four dams were to be removed, according to Fish Passage Center data.

But biologists for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power and other federal agencies say they have developed spillway devices that make salmon migration downstream easier, without spilling as much water away from hydroelectric turbines that produce power. Their experts have argued the devices have made a major improvement in fish survival, and doubt that dramatic improvements are possible.

A new day?

Judge Simon’s order gave the agencies little wiggle room. It also especially gave leverage to the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe. Bonneville Power, facing threats to its future from changing electrical markets and rising costs, including for salmon, saw an opportunity.

If it could produce power when it was most valuable — not only to its Northwest customers but also utilities in California and elsewhere — it could get revenues to address its rising costs. One of the limitations has been state laws to limit the levels of nitrogen gas saturated into the water below the dams by the high spill.

Biologists, especially those working for public utilities and Bonneville Power, have argued that high nitrogen saturation kills more fish than the increased spill saves. The Fish Passage Center data has disputed that.

In the agreement, the states of Oregon and Washington agreed to go through the regulatory process to lift the gas caps.

This means more water will be spilled in 2019 and even more in the next two years, the life of the agreement. But if it shows, as the states and the tribes expect, increased survival, it could lead to longer-term agreements.

For Bonneville and its customers, the agreement ensures the cost of spilling more water won’t rise above the 2018 benchmark. This gives the agency certainty it hasn’t had since Simon’s ruling.

Mainzer said the agreement also will allow Bonneville to compete in emerging electric markets coming in the future.

“It was very important to us to establish a more productive and collaborative working relationship with the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe so that all four of the region’s states and the broader tribal community could be working together on these very important and complex issues,” he said.

Elliot Mainzer, Bonneville Power Administration administrator, who engineered the agreement with Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe on spilling more water over the Snake and Columbia river dams. Rocky Barker

Power customers skeptical

Many of Bonneville’s public power customers have expressed skepticism and outright opposition to the agreement, along with Washington Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse.

Bear Prairie, general manager of Idaho Falls Power, said he was pleased the region has come together on a solution. But he’s skeptical the agreement will answer the questions that divide salmon scientists.

“Can we glean clear science from this study?” he asked. “I just don’t think spill is a silver bullet.”

On the other side, advocates for Idaho’s salmon, and, more recently, endangered orcas which depend on Snake River salmon seasonally, are worried more dramatic action is needed sooner. Shannon F. Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said he backs the agreement “as the tribe continues to address the significant fish mortality from the dams and ensure a full analysis of lower Snake River dam breaching.”

Tom Stuart, a board member of Idaho Rivers United, who has advocated for salmon for more than 25 years, said he sees the agreement as a minor improvement for fish but a path with potential for more.

“It could potentially be a more significant political breakthrough,” Stuart said.

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