Top ten myths and realities (courtesy of Trout Unlimited)
The amount and magnitude of misinformation related to Snake River dam removal has been staggering. Accordingly, this section will be updated regularly to provide the latest facts. Most myths are easily dispelled by readily available data or simple common sense. Others are so extreme, they merit little mention in a forum such as this one, but we’ll try. Please check back often as the myths and mysteries of Snake River salmon and dams are always on the move.
1. MYTH: Because of the energy crisis in the West, we have no option but to forgo salmon recovery measures mandated by the 2000 Biological Opinion (such as providing adequate flow and spill for spring migrating fish), effectively trading massive numbers of ESA-listed species for minimal power production increases.
REALITY: Certainly, the energy crisis is making some salmon recovery measures more difficult. However, resource managers are not seriously considering all available options.
On the production side, the federal government could require the release of more water from Bureau of Reclamation projects in the upper Snake River basin and use it to help flush juvenile fish down the river during spring migration. These upper reservoirs were constructed to provide irrigation water to farmers in southern Idaho who grow Idaho’s famous potatoes. But with potato prices at all-time lows and farmers plowing potatoes under or giving them to food banks around the country, that water becomes invaluable to migrating salmon and, if released into the Snake, would also turn turbines and create more electricity and revenue. Profits from the sale of the power could be used to offset this year’s losses of the farmers caused by the slumping market.
In addition, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has suggested that the Bush Administration could allow the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to defer the annual payment it owes the U.S. Treasury for the construction of the Columbia/Snake dams. This would allow BPA to buy more power on the market and have more flexibility in managing the Columbia and Snake rivers to help fish rather than produce power.
Options like these seem at least as justifiable under current “emergency” conditions as widespread killing of ESA-listed species. Unfortunately, these options do not appear to be under serious consideration by federal agencies or the Administration. The default option of killing salmon to date appears to be winning out.
2. MYTH: The federal government’s salmon recovery plan (the 2000 Biological Opinion) and its array of non-dam-removal recovery measures will be sufficient to bring back sustainable populations of wild Snake River salmon.
REALITY: While the 2000 Biological Opinion does contain some limited recovery measures that will likely help salmon, the vast, overwhelming opinion among fisheries scientists maintains it will almost surely fall short or real recovery without a provision for removing the 4 lower Snake River dams. In a letter to former President Clinton just prior to the release of the Biological Opinion, 215 government, tribal, university and independent scientists urged that dam removal be included, warning that without it the plan would likely fail.
Campaign partners have published a number of critiques of the science that “supports” the federal plan, showing clearly that it uses flawed methods, is based on overly optimistic assumptions, and fails to account for observed trends in the salmon’s decline.
3. MYTH: Dam removal proponents say it would be a “silver bullet” that alone would bring sustainable levels of salmon and steelhead back to the Snake.
REALITY: For Columbia-Snake basin salmon recovery, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. The Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign has not focused all its resources on taking out dams, and we leave no illusions that dam removal alone would recover Snake River fish.
However, removing the dams would be the cornerstone of a Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery program, and would allow for more benefit from correlative harvest, hatchery and habitat measures. Further, removal focuses on the primary mortality for the fish, and thus equitably spreads the recovery pain to those activities that have the most impact.
4. MYTH: The government says that 98 percent of the smolts barged or trucked around the dams are alive when they are released below Bonneville (the lower-most dam on the Columbia), so something other than the hydro/dam system is causing the fish not to come back from the ocean.
REALITY: Even if you accept the 98 percent figure, which is highly debatable, the claim that young salmon have a pulse when they’re dumped back into the river isn’t much to hang one’s hat on. Salmon migration is a phenomenon that has developed over millennia. The stresses of the hydro system and its warm slackwater pools, capture facilities, and transportation system take enormous-and largely unquantified-tolls on the health of young fish and their ability to maintain migrating instincts.
Young fish are indeed dying in the estuary and the ocean. In the case of transported fish, mortality can be largely attributed to the direct and indirect effects of the systems used to get the fish around, over or through the dams.
5. MYTH: President George W. Bush, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and others have said that the dams’ fish-killing qualities are fixable through the development and installation of “fish-friendly” turbines.
REALITY: Fish-friendly turbines are yet another elaborate, expensive and ineffective means to correct the mistakes built into the dams. Brig. Gen. Carl A. Strock, the Army Corps of Engineers’ head hydro expert for Northwest Corps dams said as much in the February 11, 2000 Lewiston Morning Tribune:
“You will not hear me use the term ‘fish-friendly turbines,’ because there is no such thing. We recognize that.”
6. MYTH: It’s not the dams that are killing salmon; it’s the tribal, commercial, and sport harvesters that are responsible.
REALITY: The total in-river (tribal, commercial, sport) harvest of Snake River spring and summer chinook now accounts for about 9 percent of the run. Due to migration patterns of these stocks in conjunction with fishing seasons, ocean harvest in nearly non-existent. For Snake River fall chinook-a much more abundant stock-combined ocean and in-river harvest of Snake River fall chinook is less than 30 percent.
Tribal harvesters-those guaranteed by treaty to fish-have reduced annual harvest to a fraction of historical levels, and currently only fish commercially for fall chinook. Tribal commercial fishers stopped fishing for summer chinook in 1965, for spring chinook in 1977, and for sockeye in 1988. Non-Indian commercial and sport fishers from Oregon to Alaska have also greatly reduced harvest.
What these numbers, which pale in comparison to hydro-related salmon mortality, demonstrate clearly is that harvest is not the problem. While federal fish managers continue to chip away at the already minimal harvest numbers, they refuse to hold the real fish killers-the dams-accountable and to reduce their impacts by any significant measure at all.
7. MYTH: Removal of the 4 lower Snake River dams is simply the first step in a vast conspiracy to remove all dams; the Columbia River dams are next.
The Campaign’s focus in the Basin lies purely on the four lower Snake dams and the Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead. There is no conspiracy to destroy every dam in the Columbia Basin. The mainstem Columbia dams and numerous other projects in the region provide countless benefits related to flood control, hydroelectric production and transportation, and can be operated in a manner consistent with long-term natural resource persistence and recovery.
For the 4 lower Snake dams, however, the resource impacts far outweigh their economic benefits. This process is not about all dams being bad or all dams being good: This is a case-by-case analysis. For the 4 lower Snake River dams, the verdict is clear.
8. MYTH: Removing the four dams would cause a flood of silt to choke the lower Columbia system, causing widespread damage to natural resources-especially the fish.
REALITY: While it’s true that there would be a release of sediment that has built up behind the dams since their construction, the predictions of apocalyptic impacts to the river system are not. There would be two main types of sediment released: fine sands and larger, rocky debris.
The finer sediments would flush quickly through the system and most would settle behind the McNary dam on the Columbia-the first dam downstream from the confluence with the Snake. The larger rocky debris would settle in the main river channel, providing additional pristine spawning habitat for salmon. Further, rivers are extremely adept at dealing with events such as sediment loads. The nearby Toutle River in southwest Washington serves as an example. The massive mud and debris load that flooded the Toutle in 1980 following the eruption of Mount St. Helens would dwarf the sediment load behind the lower Snake dams. In the years following 1980, the Toutle’s resident and anadromous fish returned.
9. MYTH: The increase in truck and rail traffic resulting from the loss of the lower Snake shipping channel would blacken Northwest skies with smog and destroy the ground transportation infrastructure.
REALITY: The Army Corps of Engineers studied fossil fuel emissions of the current river transportation system and the projected changes that would result from removing the lower Snake dams, and found that the two would essentially contribute the same amount of fossil fuel emissions to the air. The plans for infrastructure improvement projected if the dams are breached would yield a vastly improved transportation system within the Columbia Basin. (In fact, when the dams were built, they took away railroad jobs. But the tracks are still there, running parallel to the river and waiting to be used again).
Removal in this case provides the region with a unique opportunity to end up with investments in its transportation infrastructure that otherwise would not be possible.
10. MYTH: Salmon can’t possibly be in trouble: you can find them all over the Northwest in grocery stores and restaurants year-round!
REALITY: Salmon, trout and steelhead are farmed just like cows and hogs. The salmon, trout and steelhead for sale in Northwest stores and restaurants either came from a farm, net pen, or-in the rare case it was actually caught in a natural setting-was likely harvested in Alaska or Canada. Endangered Species Act-listed Snake River salmon and steelhead are not a significant part of the Northwest’s diet.