©2000 Cascadia Times
Industries' Dirty Air
Triggers a Federal Prosecution
Paul Koberstein and John Paul Williams
future is now for Snake River Salmon and four Federal Dams
Clinton takes a green brush to his
Pending BP-Arco merger threatens Arctic
Future is Now for Snake River Salmon and Four Federal Dams
by Elizabeth Grossman
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
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
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
"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
The case is now in the briefing stage, and judgment from Judge
Helen Frye, is not expected for several months, perhaps early this
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
"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
"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
Next: Who's going to pay
for all these changes