In Idaho, the plight of salmon spawns an unorthodox proposal

Why We Wrote This

In the Pacific Northwest, a growing number of advocates are questioning the conventional wisdom that the interests of salmon and hydropower are inherently at odds.

Keith Ridler/AP/File
The Salmon River flows through the Sawtooth Valley near the town of Stanley, Idaho, in 2016. A federal judge recently ordered the U.S. Forest Service to consult with other federal agencies about nearly two dozen water diversion projects in the central valley that could be harming salmon and other fish.

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As salmon populations grow increasingly vulnerable, some advocates in Idaho see hope for a solution that in the past seemed unthinkable in the region: Breach the dams that hinder the fish as they migrate to the ocean and later return to spawn.

In a region that has long relied on hydroelectric power and grain exports, the idea of forgoing reliable electricity and removing navigable waters faces an uphill battle, but it is gaining traction in unexpected quarters. Recognizing that hydropower is no longer the region’s cheapest option, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a Republican, said it’s time to consider the idea.

“After spending $16 billion on salmon recovery over the last however many years, is it working?” he asked in a speech to stakeholders on April 23. “All of Idaho’s salmon runs are either threatened or endangered. Look at the number of returning salmon and the trend line is not going up. It’s going down.”

Conservationists suggest that the plan might work. According to Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, “If you get out of their way, the fish will make a pretty significant return.” 

Justin Hayes points to a map that shows the route salmon must take in their juvenile journey out to the ocean ​– and eight reasons why it’s so difficult.

For ages, the smolts glided swiftly with the currents. In modern times, they must negotiate an arduous passage over or through eight dams. 

To Mr. Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League, that is four dams too many. Most of the young fish are perishing. 

These are the fish that Lewis and Clark spotted (and ate) in abundance on their expedition in 1805. To the native peoples of this region, they were a core of both diet and culture. Even the forest landscapes, Mr. Hayes says, have been shaped by the way migrating fish transfer nutrients gathered in the ocean to mountain streams when they die after spawning. 

For decades, two priorities in the Pacific Northwest – salmon and the hydroelectric dams that power the region’s economy – have seemed inescapably opposed. But old assumptions may have started to shift. 

At a conference here in Boise this spring, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho put an idea on the table that has long been resisted by elected politicians: possibly breaching some of the dams ​– to unblock the river to help the threatened fish populations survive and recover.

Equally important, perhaps, was the way this Republican congressman framed the discussion. The hydropower system faces a crisis just like the salmon do, and “they are interwoven.”  The changing economics of electricity ​– with hydropower no longer the region’s lowest-cost option ​– appears to be breaching old ways of thinking.

“There is a new fact on the field,” says Mr. Hayes. And he says that, as Mr. Simpson elevates this discussion, “for the first time in many years I feel like we have a hopeful chance of saving salmon for future generations.”

A struggling business model

Support for breaching dams is far from universal, but there’s no doubt that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) faces an altered outlook. For years, this federal power-marketing agency had its core customers in the region hooked on cheap hydropower. 

Now, as natural gas and renewable sources like solar and wind have grown cheaper, retaining those core customers can no longer be assumed. (Their contracts expire in 2028.) Meanwhile, the BPA finds itself squeezed by high debt loads, the cost burden of fish-recovery efforts, and a decline in demand from California for the agency’s surplus power.

Bonneville hasn’t endorsed dam breaching, and is working to implement a strategic plan to address its challenges. But BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer has been blunt about the stakes.

“It’s been a bloodbath for folks in the wholesale market,” he said in a public appearance last year. “I’m not in a panic mode, but I am in a very, very significant sense of urgency mode.”

In April speech to various stakeholders gathered in Boise, Congressman Simpson argued that it’s time to seek a holistic solution, by rewriting the 1980 Northwest Power Act to reflect the needs for both electricity and fish. He didn’t call for dam removal outright, but he questioned pointedly whether the four dams on the lower Snake River – which account for barely 13 percent of BPA’s hydropower capacity – are needed.

Signs of a shift

His speech isn’t the only sign of fresh urgency regarding endangered salmon.

Washington state’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, with an eye on struggling populations of orcas that rely on salmon for food, has supported extra spilling of water over dams to aid the oceanward migration of young fish. Both he and Republican Gov. Brad Little of Idaho are convening task forces on how to do more.

Yet Mr. Simpson’s nudging toward new federal legislation on the issue ​may be the most significant step of all.

“We’ve never really heard a congressional leader from the Northwest delegation kind of lay that on the table,” says Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in Portland, Oregon.

Mark Trumbull/The Christian Science Monitor
Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, stands outside the group's office in Boise on June 7, 2019. He calls for removing four dams on the lower Snake River, to allow for the state's native salmon populations to survive.

The idea of breaching dams faces political hurdles as uphill as the ones returning salmon make through fish ladders on their journey to spawn. Even the Fish Commission, representing four tribes with treaty rights for harvesting fish, hasn’t officially endorsed the idea yet.

Since a range of factors affect fish populations, from ocean conditions to predators, some observers ask if it would make much difference to demolish dams or breach them to restore a free-flowing river. But on that question, Mr. Pinkham cites research by fish biologists to give an unhesitating answer. 

“You bet it will!” he says. 

Big concerns for farmers

But breaching dams has harsh critics, too. It would disrupt everything from electricity supplies to irrigation to the ability of farmers to export their grain to Asia.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both Republican members of Congress from farm-oriented districts in Washington state, released a joint statement May 20: “We stand with the people of Central and Eastern Washington who rely on the Snake River dams.” They asked Governor Inslee to veto a state-funded study on dam breaching.

Farmers’ concerns run deep. Tom Davis, director of government relations at the Washington Farm Bureau, says grain shipments hinge on a navigable river, which in turn is created by the pooling of water into reservoirs. He says breaching the dams would not only disrupt grain exports, but also require building new diversion points for drawing river water for irrigation.

Other critics of dam breaching include tourist-boat operators. Still others say a virtue of the dams is producing clean and “dispatchable” power, potentially available at times when sunshine or wind might not be. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
Bureau of Reclamation employees discuss the installation of a fish ladder on the Cle Elum dam on August 10, 2016 in Cle Elum, Washington. The dam is located on the site of a deep glacier lake in the Stuart range. The project seeks to install a newly developed fish ladder that will allow the fish to exit the lake bypassing the dam is a safe manner.

 

Beneath the debate, too, is a regional gap in political identity and trust. Farmers in eastern Washington, Mr. Davis says, “get very tired of folks in Seattle telling them how to live their lives.”

Mr. Simpson says it’s time to seek creative answers. Could truck or rail transport be expanded in a way that works for farmers? Could the region lean on its national labs to become a leader in battery storage for the grid, and in a safer next generation of nuclear power plants?

Whatever the details, consensus building will be vital if a bill focused on Columbia-Snake complexities is to pass Congress.

“It would take a coordinated and cooperative Northwest delegation to make something like that happen,” says Tom Karier, an economist at Eastern Washington University.

Not all salmon are at risk. But important populations in Idaho are listed as either endangered (sockeye) or threatened (notably the spring and summer chinook salmon). Other migratory fish including steelhead are also threatened. 

“The fish are imperiled,” says Jason Vogel, acting director of fishery research with the Nez Percé Tribe, based in Lapwai, Idaho. 

“Here in Idaho there is not a single river or stream where there are enough fish returning” to be deemed a sustainable population, as determined by federal scientists under the Endangered Species Act, he says.

A recovery would benefit not only the fish themselves, and tribes with harvesting rights. It also would buoy a now-constrained recreational fishing industry. And it would help malnourished orcas, whose plight has prompted more than 750,000 people to sign an online petition supporting dam breaching.

A comeback for the chinook?

Among the benefits of breaching or removing dams: less water pooled in reservoirs. The result would be safer (cooler) water temperatures for the salmon, a more normal pace of their migration, and fewer predators along the way.

“It’s a matter of cumulative effects,” explains Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a Seattle-based coalition. Each dam is a hurdle, but research suggests there’s a big difference between needing to pass four versus eight.

Mr. Bogaard says dam removal on smaller rivers has been successful. “The lower Snake restoration provides an order of magnitude [more] habitat,” he adds. “There’s tremendous potential of a very big restoration [of fish].” 

Mr. Pinkham, who is from the Nez Percé Tribe, is among the stakeholders who says he’ll be meeting with Mr. Simpson in coming weeks to confer about possible answers.

Finding a consensus may require compassion and humility as well as outside-the-box thinking.

“We always say you want to make everybody whole” in situations like this, Mr. Pinkham says. “Tribes haven’t been made whole since those dams were built. Others may feel that sense of sacrifice too.”

Despite the rifts among interest groups, Representative Simpson’s push for fresh thinking gives Mr. Pinkham hope. 

“Is he a linchpin? I would say he is,” Mr. Pinkham says. The congressman made a commitment to explore this issue, and “I think he has the leadership to do it, regardless of who controls the House or the administration.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a reference on which Snake River fish populations are officially listed as endangered or threatened.

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