Wild Salmon Should Unite Us

We are Not Seeing the Leadership We Need

People in the Pacific Northwest and beyond have been fighting over dams on the Snake River since the last of the floodgates closed in 1975, when the region’s wild salmon populations began to plummet. The fight over the dams and their ill effects on salmon and water quality has been long and fierce. People feel strongly.  Water and salmon embody our core values.  And electricity produced by dams has helped fuel the Northwest’s economy.

The length and passion of the fight has obscured important changes occurring in region. It’s increasingly clear that the Northwest can restore abundant runs of wild salmon and still have a robust power system and the benefits that flow from it. Because of their cultural, commercial and recreational importance, the restoration of wild salmon can unite the people of Idaho, Washington and Oregon like no other cause.

The beautiful Snake River rises in western Wyoming, flows across the Snake River plain of southern Idaho, through Hells Canyon on the Idaho-Oregon border and into eastern Washington where it meets the might Columbia at Tri-Cities, Washington. Credit: BLM Idaho.

A Failed Fish Strategy

Twenty five years ago, when the government added decimated runs of wild salmon and steelhead to the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act, biologists hoped an array of actions, including habitat enhancement, dam operation modifications and even barging juvenile fish downstream, would restore wild fish. For those 25 years, the Northwest’s hydroelectric dams were the central components of the region’s energy system and changing dam operations to restore fish was a subject of much dispute.

In 2018, we know the fish strategy, despite spending $2 billion, has failed. We know this because the fish populations in every run continue to nosedive, year over year.  In 2018, because of renewable energy and energy conservation, we also know that dams are much less important to the region’s energy system. Given these facts, we have the opportunity to rethink our answers to both the strategy for restoring wild salmon and how we manage our hydroelectric system.

Unfortunately, our political leaders have yet to acknowledge reality – that salmon recovery isn’t working and that new and better energy sources have emerged. There is no better example of political disconnect than a recent bill from Washington’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers seeking to freeze the existing management and salmon recovery efforts of the Snake River dams even as fish numbers continue to fall.

There is a Positive Path Forward for Wild Salmon and Powering the Pacific Northwest

salmon rally

Wild salmon and steelhead advocates calling for a plan to restore Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead. Photo by Oxbow22/Save Our Salmon.

An evolving energy system creates opportunities to take a different path forward. Because of energy conservation, electricity demand is flat. As clean and efficient renewable energy supply has grown, the relative importance of the dams has dramatically decreased. In fact, the four dams on the lower Snake River, which block migrating fish from the best spawning habitats in Idaho, now provide less than 5 percent of the region’s electricity capacity. The future can look different but no less reliable or affordable for energy generation even if dam operations are modified.

If we don’t choose this brighter energy future within our grasp, the forecast for salmon goes dark. Over the past 25 years, the federal salmon recovery efforts, despite their great cost, have achieved nothing by way of increased numbers of wild fish. In 2017, spring and summer Chinook runs were less than 10 percent of their recovery goals. Sockeye salmon are perhaps functionally extinct (11 sockeye returned to Idaho’s Stanley Basin last year). And steelhead had the worst return ever recorded. While the region’s hatcheries are still producing catchable numbers of fish, hatchery-reared fish are no substitute for saving an irreplaceable salmon gene pool and rebuilding the once-fantastic runs of wild fish that sustained generations of anglers and tied together the peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

As we stand witness to these perilous declines, and federal and state agencies fail to reverse the trend, we need our political leaders to recognize the folly of continuing to squander money on fish recovery measures that have not worked. The legislation introduced by Congresswoman McMorris is built on incorrect assumptions about the region’s reliance on dams to power our communities and forfeits some of our greatest natural resources to an expensive, failed fish program that will not recover wild salmon.

This ongoing crisis for wild fish and the expanding regional energy options tell us it is time for the political leadership of the Northwest to come together and reach a new solution.

After years of fighting over the false choice between power and fish, people in the Northwest are ready for a new approach. We need leaders to look at our region’s priceless and irreplaceable natural and historic legacy, at the available facts, and walk us together toward a solution that honors us all, and protects the wild fish runs for our children and grandchildren.

Saving the salmon should unite us and inspire our political leaders to work with us toward their ultimate survival.

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