2000 Cascadia Times


Willamette Industries' Dirty Air
Triggers a Federal Prosecution

by Paul Koberstein and John Paul Williams



The future is now for Snake River Salmon and four Federal Dams

Clinton takes a green brush to his legacy

Pending BP-Arco merger threatens Arctic environment

The Future is Now for Snake River Salmon and Four Federal Dams

by Elizabeth Grossman
/Cascadia Times

Part 1

It is early October and the hills above the lower Snake are a deep late summer mustard yellow. Sumac and maples have begun to turn red. The flat water of the river reflects the solid blue sky. I have come to see the four lower Snake River dams -- huge seemingly inviolable edifices of engineering, the breaching of which is now being discussed by the very government agencies which built them just a generation ago. Under the Endangered Species Act, which now protects what's left of Snake River salmon runs, the federal government must ensure that the lower Snake River dams do not put the salmon in jeopardy of extinction. Drawdown, or removal of the earthen section of the four dams, is one of the options being considered to recover the listed stocks. The federal government is due to release its recovery plan in early 2000. I wanted to get a sense of the landscape-- literal and figurative -- behind all the number crunching, PowerPoint presentations and drafting of alternative scenarios that has gone on in the process of circling around what should be done to repair what our "control of nature" -- to use John McPhee's phrase -- on the Snake has wrought.

"Young salmon and steelhead are collected at Lower Granite Dam and transported by fish truck to the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam. Thus, their journey to the ocean is uninterrupted by the dams and the fish mortality problems of nitrogen supersaturation and generators are diminished," reads an explanatory placard at the Lower Granite Dam visitors center.

At Little Goose Dam, steelhead fishermen have set up their campers, RVs and lawn chairs on the shore along the slackwater on either side of the dam. A sign warns them not to entangle their lines in the wires strung across the river, draped with what looks like Christmas tinsel, to deter birds from preying on fish in the slow water.

Ahead of me on the highway is a pressurized steel tanker truck emblazoned with the legend, "Fish for the Future." It is part of the Army Corps of Engineers' juvenile fish transport fleet. Miles of colored piping, bearing a close architectural similarity to the industrial decor of the exterior of the Beaubourg museum in Paris, wind around what are described as juvenile fish passage facilities. Fish ladders resembling steel washboards and amusement park waterslides zig-zag and loop alongside the dams' shoreline structures. "Which is the dam with the loop-de-loop?" jokes a friend who has toured these dams. "Little Goose," I say, recalling the hairpin turn of steel runway that rises high over the visitors parking area.

The possibility of dam breaching is exhilarating to some, and threatening to many. The very fact that drawdowns and breaching are a daily subject of discussion for those concerned with rivers, fish and the use of water in the Pacific Northwest, is in itself remarkable for what it represents in a change in thinking. Millions of dollars have been spent, countless hours of meetings attended and endless studies commissioned by those on all sides of the issue. The actual progress toward a decision was summed up by a recent cartoon in The Oregonian which pictured two officials with clipboards in hand, standing over a beached, dead fish. "They're easier to study this way," says one official to the other.

It's impossible to predict now if the dams will be breached or not, and it's important to bear in mind that Congressional authorization is needed to allocate the necessary funding and that a number of those purse-strings are now controlled by Northwestern representatives. But, a potentially landmark lawsuit challenging the legality of the dams' effect on water quality has been filed and may force the federal government to act. And among the recent barrage of reports is that released by a team of scientists from various federal agencies, states, tribes and universities, known as PATH --Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses -- examining various options for recovery of Snake River salmon concluding that "only the breaching actions consistently resulted in recovery."

"The fact that it's safer to transfer them by truck than let them loose in the rivers, says it all," responds Governor Tony Knowles (D-Alaska) discussing salmon at an October 25th press briefing in Juneau when asked by reporters for his position on breaching the four Lower Snake River dams.

"Governor Kitzhaber (D-Ore.) has said it's a 'no brainer' that fish would rather swim," says Knowles, "and that it's our responsibility as decision makers to resolve the issue -- and answer to history."

Knowles' comments come amidst the latest volley of reports, studies and statements debating the fate the four Lower Snake River dams and the fight to save Pacific salmon, in what has the potential to develop into a showdown between federal agencies. Just months ago, as part of the PATH process, the National Marine Fisheries Service said the most likely way to recover the Snake's endangered runs of anadromous fish, is to breach the dams. In a paper just released by NMFS, known as the Four-H Working Paper, a whole new set of studies by a new team of scientists in a process called the Cumulative Risk Initiative, sets out an array of options that seems to concentrate efforts on restoration of the estuary and of habitat in the river's tributaries where the fish spawn rather than in the mainstem where the dams are.

While NMFS is careful to say they are not now recommending any one of these alternatives, the emphasis is clearly to show that by focusing on the tributaries, estuaries and harvest levels, recovery of Snake River salmon and steelhead is possible without dam breaching. The paper was welcomed by Northwest Republicans who take it to mean that dam breaching has been taken off the table, at least for now.

The CRI studies are based on a model which uses one fish or less as the threshold for extinction. The study has received serious criticism in the review process, and is causing disagreement between the federal agencies involved in protecting and managing the threatened species. Among other concerns, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board reviewing CRI, cites the study's failure to consider the effects of restoration involving both dam breaching and habitat restoration, and to incorporate many biological and environmental factors into its analysis.

The study does not include an economic analysis, nor does it outline how the work of the federal agencies would be integrated with the local activities on which its restoration plans depend. Preliminary estimates indicate that the alternatives presented in the Four-H paper may well be more expensive than dam breaching.

"At the end of the day, I believe we should probably end up with a different package than we have here today," said Will Stelle, NMFS Regional Administrator, adding yet more variables into the mix, at the press conference presenting the Four-H paper. "If we avoid making those choices," said Stelle, "the likelihood is that these stocks in the Snake would go extinct. That is a choice."

Conservation groups and tribal representatives have criticized the paper as a delaying technique, as have the ISAB who write they are "not comfortable with the apparent drift toward delay of the actual decisions about the management decisions bearing on hydrosystem operations, possible dam breaching, and other interventions as well."

When queried for further information following the 4-H paper presentation, the media contact for the Bonneville Power Administration responded by saying, "What did you think of that press conference? It made me sick to my stomach."

"The status of the fish in question is pretty desperate," said Fred Olney, Ecological Services Fisheries Supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Portland when asked about the Four-H paper. "Time is short," he said. "We need to take some specific action pretty soon."

In October, scientists with several fish agencies made just that point in a paper that was harshly critical of NMFS' approach. The paper, signed by biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, said: "Given the dangerously low level of these (Snake River salmon and steelhead) populations, we do not believe it is prudent to make management decisions on the configuration and operation of the Snake and Columbia hydrosystem for the next 5 to 20 years based solely on one optimistic assumption (by NMFS) about the effectiveness of past and current hydrosystem operations."

To extend the ping-pong game of agency position statements, the Army Corps of Engineers released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement in December, assessing the effects of the hydropower system on Snake River salmon and steelhead. A key appendix concludes that dam removal alone would be sufficient to recover Snake River stocks of fall chinook and steelhead, and that dam removal must be included in any plan to recover spring and summer chinook, even if the mortality rate of fish passing through the dams is low. Clearly, scientific conclusions are telling us that dam removal, as American Rivers puts it, must "be a cornerstone of any salmon recovery plan."

While NMFS has their Northwest Fisheries Science Center running new sets of fish numbers, the state of Oregon has filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit charging that the four lower Snake dams' elevation of water temperature and levels of dissolved gas in the river violate standards set by the Clean Water Act. Sources indicate that the state of Alaska may file an amicus brief as well. The suit was filed in Federal District Court in Oregon in 1999 by the National Wildlife Federation and a coalition of conservation groups, with the Nez Perce Tribe intervening on the plaintiff's side. Oregon's brief expresses the state's concern that the federal government work to bring the four dams into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Having federal dams comply with the Clean Water Act is new, explains Nicole Cordan, Acting Director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northwest Natural Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. "Privately owned dams have to comply with CWA standards and need a certificate of compliance," says Cordan. Extraordinary as it may seem for an entity with access to so much concrete, federally built and operated dams do not need to go through this permitting process.

"We are looking for the federal government to be treated like all other polluters," says Eric Bloch, one of Oregon's two representatives on the Northwest Power Planning Council and adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber on Columbia Basin issues.

A Columbia River water temperature assessment developed for the Environmental Protection Agency, completed in August of this year, describes the "Snake River [as]...the most significant tributary to the Columbia River, with the potential to make the biggest difference in temperature modulation." It goes on to say that "measured results on the Snake River...show that temperatures are above state temperature standards during certain periods within the months of July, August and September. "The temperature standard for the Columbia is 68 (degrees), and even if "you get the tributaries down to 64," said an expert at EPA, "you can't get the mainstem temperature down to standard."

"In general," the report says in summary, "the broad conclusion...is that removal of the dams, as compared to increasing even the coolest water inputs from tributaries, would be the most effective in bringing down temperatures in the Columbia-Snake system...removing the lower Snake River dams would significantly reduce average temperatures along the lower stretch of the Snake." There is simply not enough water in the tributaries alone to bring down the mainstem temperature adequately, explained a source at EPA.

The details of this suit are technical, but its principles are not. As water is impounded behind the dams it heats up. When water comes crashing over the dams' spillways, it increases the levels of dissolved gas in the waters below. The suit is asking that the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers which operates the four Lower Snake dams, comply with CWA standards and not be allowed to -- as Bloch puts it -- "self diagnose and self prescribe" the solution to the problem. He fears that if they do, the burden of the remedy will fall on the states and private entities. "We've been working for years with ranchers, farmers and other private entities who are all contributors to pollution," he says. To have the federal government treated separately and apart would "not be fair."

"We are in discussions with many constituencies throughout the State, including industry, municipalities, agriculture and forestry exhorting them to shoulder their share of the burden of returning our waters to standards compliance. To have the federal government argue that it should not have to shoulder its share would seriously prejudice our efforts," wrote Governor Kitzhaber to Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Carol Browner in August.

"Taking out the dams is one way to comply," says Cordan almost slyly.

The case is now in the briefing stage, and judgment from Judge Helen Frye, is not expected for several months, perhaps early this year.

Although scientists agree that recovery of the salmon cannot be absolutely guaranteed by breaching and drawdowns, most concur that current practices are threatening the species' survival. And the ESA listings of Snake and Columbia River salmon continue, so that it is impossible for the region to ignore that it's facing the likely extinction of a native wild species that is one of the bases of its culture.

"If science suggests we remove dams, it doesn't necessarily mean we should do it. But we must be willing to put these issues on the table and put the price tag on it," said Governor Kitzhaber at a conference in the fall of 1998. "We are here today because salmon are on the verge of extinction," said tribal leader Antone Minthorne later that morning. "Is it okay to allow the extinction of salmon?" he queried rhetorically. "We must make choices that implicate moral and ethical values." "I think we've heard from more panelists today than there may be fish left in the river," quipped Portland Metro Executive Mike Burton still later that afternoon, as the audience laughed nervously.

Other causes have contributed to the decline of Snake River salmon, but "the principle factor leading to the decline and subsequent listing of the runs under the protection of the Endangered Species Act was the construction and operation of these dams," write Michael Blumm, professor of law at the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College, and colleagues in their article, "Saving Snake River Water and Salmon Simultaneously." Numbers of Snake River salmon have been dwindling for well over a century now due to the cumulative effect of degraded habitat, overfishing at the turn of the 20th century and changing ocean conditions, but they dipped precipitously in the 1970s after the last of the four Lower Snake dams was built. All Snake River salmon are now listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Snake River coho are extinct, and the few sockeye that survive are in a captive breeding program.

"Oregon biologists estimated the dams are responsible for up to 93 percent of total mortality of Snake River fall chinook," wrote Alaska Governor Tony Knowles in an October 22nd letter to the Governors of Oregon and Washington. "...The National Marine Fisheries Service," he continues, "allows the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to kill 62-99 percent of the juvenile Snake River fall chinook and nearly 40 percent of the adults. Instead of Safe Passage, these wild chinook salmon must survive a "killing field" of dams, turbines, and reservoirs."

"Are you saying that Washington and Oregon have not done their part to restore salmon?" asked a reporter at Knowles' press conference a few days later. "I'm saying," Knowles responded, "that science shows us juvenile [salmon] mortality is in freshwater....The rehabilitation has to be done in the Northwest rivers and streams."

In a curious political twist, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, attached a rider to a Commerce appropriation bill that stresses recovery of Columbia and Snake River salmon by improving river conditions, ahead of reducing ocean harvest.

While development, grazing, industrial and agricultural run-off, logging and water diversion have degraded the quality of river habitat throughout the Columbia and Snake River basin, the dams on the Columbia's largest tributary, the Snake, have, physically, altered that environment the most.

Next: Who's going to pay for all these changes