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Dance of denial.

The salmon are close to three feet long in a stream just ten feet across. They hover in the shade of a lodgepole snag, tails slowly waving, mouths opening slightly and closing. Suddenly the biggest of the three chases a smaller competitor into the shallows downstream, backs and tails slicing the surface until the bigger fish veers to deeper water and the smaller one wriggles upstream again, belly to the gravel, more out of the water than in. It's a surge of life that belies their true condition. Their spotted backs are splotched white, their fins frayed Within a few weeks, spawning completed, they will die.

After spending most of their lives roaming the North Pacific, these successful spawners have traveled 850 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to reach a meandering stretch of Marsh Creek, high in the Sawtooth Range of Idaho. Eating nothing after entering fresh water, they climbed the fish ladders of four big dams on the lower Columbia and four more on the lower Snake, then turned east up the River of No Return and south up the Middle Fork Salmon, leaping up falls and struggling through shallow currents caused by seven years of drought. At each confluence of river or stream they knew where to go. Something in the water told them, something that smelled like home. Three to five years ago, these fish were born in this same mountain stream, probably within a hundred yards of the pool where they now pursue their courtship.

These are some of the few Snake River spring chinook salmon that are left. In 1991 only 40 redds, or spawning nests, were counted in the Marsh Creek drainage; in the late 1950s and early '60s, the annual count averaged nearly ten times that number. Other streams in the area have shown similar declines in chinook, but it's the Snake River sockeye that has experienced the most precipitous population collapse. These sockeye used to spawn only a few miles from Marsh Creek in Redfish Lake, named after the bright crimson of the sockeye's spawning stage. Twelve to twenty thousand fish used to return here each summer. As recently as the 1950s, the run was four to five thousand. In the summer of 1992, exactly one Snake River sockeye returned to its ancestral home. The future of the stock is now in the hands of a captive-breeding program conducted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The Columbia River watershed, where these and other wild salmon runs are in danger of extinction, was once one of the richest salmon-producing regions in the world. Reaching into what are now six states and a portion of British Columbia, its rivers and streams received many millions of returning fish each year. Chinook, sockeye, coho, and steelhead thronged the waters in continuous runs virtually year-round, having adapted themselves through evolutionary time to the changing habitational nuances of 15,000 miles of spawning streams. The teeming runs supported human cultures from the first peopling of North America, giving rise to ceremonies celebrating the first fish of the season and stories depicting salmon and Iramans living in counterpart worlds. Lewis and Clark were astonished at their prodigious numbers, as were latcr-settlers. "So thick were they," wrote one early farmer, "that often, in riding a horse across at the ford, I have been compolled to get off and drive them away before my horse would go across."

More profitable than driving them away, of course, was catching them. Pitchfork and wagon worked well for farmers, but with the advent of canning technology in the 1860s, an industrial fishery went to work. Cannery towns sprang up all along the coast, none busier than Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia. Upstream, clear into the lower Snake, the river was rigged and plied with pound nets, gillnets, horse-drawn purse seines, and great fish wheels turned by the current that each could scoop out 50 tons of flopping salmon in a season. Ocean trolling blossomed as well, from Monterey Bay 650 miles south to Bristol Bay 1,700 miles north on the Alaskan coast. Regulation was spotty and ineffective. Chinook runs were shrinking by 1890; as the harvest shifted to smaller species, these too declined.

As recently as the 1950s, though, the runs were still sizable enough to support commercial fisheries, traditional Indian harvests, regular sport-fishing seasons, and considerable illegal poaching. Regulation is strong and thorough today, and it's hard to fish to extinction a species with the salmon's prodigal genius for reproduction. Since the early years of the century, more damage has been done by the other two bulwarks of the original Northwest economy-- timbering and agriculture.

Salmon depend on clear gravel streambeds for their spawning. The female, lying on her side, uses her tail to work a hollow into the gravel, into which she releases her eggs while one or more males simultaneously deposit their milt. The female then covers the eggs as she scoops out gravel for the next redd. Silt from logging and road-building has smothered the gravel of many spawning streams. Splash dams, built by early timbermen to store water for flushing logs downstream, have blown out pools and spawning beds with their releases. And cutting right down to streamside, until recently a standard practice, has caused loss of shade, resulting in high water temperatures that salmon can't tolerate.

On the rangelands of the inland Northwest, hordes of cows, unconstrained for decades, have trampled deep, narrow, gravel-bottomed creeks into wide, shallow, silted sloughs. The overgrazed lands have lost some of their capacity to absorb water, yielding quick run-offs and dry, eroded channels. Streams and in some cases entire rivers-- notably the Umatilla in northeast Oregon and the Yakima in southcentral Washington--have been seasonally dried up by irrigation diversions. And in many streams that still support spawning, diversions can turn farmers' fields into enormous fish traps, filling them annually with millions of juvenile salmon that die as the water seeps away.

Hydraulic mining, filling of wetlands, and pollution from pulp mills and sewage outfalls have also figured into the decline of Columbia Basin wild salmon from their primordial strength of untold millions to some 300,000 today. To push them to the brink of extinction, however, required more than overfishing and the many serious blows to their spawning and rearing habitat. "The only obstacle the salmon have not been able to overcome," says Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, "was the pouring of concrete across their rivers."

Dams on the Columbia had been dreamed of for decades; the federal dollars of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal made the dream come true. It was a grand, populist vision: an abundance of cheap electricity for homes and industry, irrigation to turn the basin green with crops, seaports in the dry Inland Empire, a sure harness on the river's destructive floods, and the creation of thousands of jobs to lift the Northwest out of depression. Bonneville, the first big federal dam, was finished by the Army Corps of Engineers in ]938. The Bureau of Reclamation built Grand Coulee in ]94]. Others followed, until by 1968 only one 50-mile stretch of the Columbia River--through the Hanford nuclear reservation--still flowed free. By ]975 the Snake had been similarly tamed above and below Hells Canyon, and dozens of dams had gone up on the tributaries of both rivers. In less than half a century, the running waters of the Columbia Basin had been converted into an enormous apparatus of regulated flow, producing power, food, and water transportation for a burgeoning human economy.

As fishermen and biologists had warned, there were profound impacts on the salmon. Hundreds of miles of fall chinook spawning habitat in the main-stem rivers became useless lake bottom, and thousands of miles of spawning streams used by upriver runs were permanently wailed off. Grand Coulee, too tall for fish ladders, eliminated the most fabulous run of all--the chinook called June hogs, fish that grew to 5 feet long and 125 pounds and used that bulk to fuel their epic journey into the Columbia headwaters in British Columbia. The returning June hogs of 1941 milled in the tailrace of the new dam, waiting weeks for the obstruction to clear, until they could wait no longer and spawned where they were. Their stock held on below the dam until the mid-1950s, when it disappeared forever.

Grand Coulee Dam removed 1,000 river miles of salmon habitat from the upper Columbia watershed. By the mid1960s, with construction of the Hells Canyon complex of dams, the upper Snake system was effectively blockaded too--spring chinook that once swam all the way to northeast Nevada were cut off 500 miles from home. All told, more than half the accessible habitat in the Columbia Basin has been sealed off behind impassable barriers.

Salmon hatcheries have been built throughout the region to compensate for lost habitat, but managers have had mixed luck in creating and sustaining viable runs. Hatcheries constructed to make up for Grand Coulee worked imperfectly for a few years and then not at all; eventually they were shifted to trout production. Where hatcheries have succeeded, they have frequently succeeded too well. The millions of fish they pump into the Columbia-Snake system have tended to mask the plight of the wild stocks--fishermen have been pacified with oodles of salmon while the watershed's ability to sustain natural populations has declined. An all-wild fish population became a mostly hatchery population, but since both kinds swim together in rivers and sea, fishery practices geared to hatchery numbers have further diminished the already weakened wild stocks. What's more, hatchery fish are rife with diseases--barely controlled with antibiotics--that they can spread among wild populations, and they compete for food and position in the water with their badly outnumbered native relatives.

In the long term, the most ominous danger of hatchery production may be its impact on the genetic constitution of the salmonid species. The spring chinook in Marsh Creek look and behave much like spring chinook from California to Alaska, but they know their particular place, and the peculiar rigors of getting there, like no other fish. Their genes have acquired a specific Marsh Creek expertise, a hard-won knowledge that forms one unique strand in the tapestry that is the salmonid family. As hatchery fish interbreed with and replace wild stocks, the tapestry loses its texture and ultimately its strength--the gene pool is homogenized, and the salmon's ancient ability to adapt itself to a changing environment may be compromised. That is why the Endangered Species Act protects not only the chinook species, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, but every genetically distinct population of the species that can be identified.

Hatchery practices now aim to avoid genetic dilution, but even if that fades as a problem, hatcheries are hard-pressed to fill their original role as fish-producing factories. In Idaho, no matter how many juveniles the hatcheries release, adult salmon are not returning in sufficient numbers to support fisheries--or even, in many cases, to perpetuate the hatchery programs. Hatchery or wild, the fish must run the rivers, and the rivers are blocked with dams. Bonneville did little damage by itself, but as three more dams were built on the lower Columbia and four on the lower Snake, the cumulative impact was dramatic. According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, spring and summer chinook redd counts in the Salmon River drainage have plummeted from about 6,000 in 1957 to a few hundred in 1991. In the same period, fall chinook returns have fallen to fewer than 500 adults a year, the Snake River sockeye has been reduced to a tenuous captive existence, and the Snake River coho has gone extinct.

Fish ladders exact a toll of 5 to 10 percent of returning spawners at each of the main-stem dams, but runs could thrive at that level of mortality. It's in the other direction that the engineered river system is killing the salmon. The dams simply were not designed to pass juvenile salmon, or smolt, safely downstream. In high-flow years, these fish--three to six inches long, depending on species--have been swept over the spillways, which has put them at risk of dying from gas-bubble disease in the nitrogen-supersaturated waters below. In low-flow years, more typical in the dry Snake River basin, the smolt have to pass through the generating turbines, with predictable results. Turbine intake screens and bypasses have been or are being installed at all eight dams, but such retrofitted systems are imperfect. At Lower Granite Dam on the Snake, the bypass collects 58 percent of chinook smolt at best; at Bonneville Powerhouse Number Two, the success rate is 20 percent for all species.

Time is as formidable an obstacle. Before the dams went up, when the Snake and Columbia surged in the spring with a wilderness of power behind them, the salmon hatched in the Sawtooth Range might make the journey to the Columbia estuary in as little as a week. Now the spring runoffis stored behind dams to generate winter power, and with 150 miles of river converted into a series of slackwater reservoirs, it takes the smolt up to two months or longer. The smolt face upstream, letting the current do the work. As they travel they are changing from freshwater to saltwater fish, governed by a genetic clock set by ages of fast spring floods. If their transformation completes itself before they reach the estuary, their chances of survival plunge to zero. In addition, the slow-moving reservoirs breed multitudes of squawfish and other smolt predators, and elevated water temperature also takes its toll. In all, according to state and federal fishery agencies, the death rate for migrating smolt can exceed 15 percent at each of the eight main-stem dams. More than 90 percent of human-caused mortalities are due to the dams and reservoirs.

It was known all along that building a succession of dams would kill lots of salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned of potential disaster as early as 1946; the Corps of Engineers continued to build dams that ignored downstream migration. Biologists, Indian tribes, and fishermen tried to call attention to the salmon's plight, but their voices were lost in the chorus of boosterism. Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency created to market the system's electricity, warned of shortages and blackouts if more dams weren't built, even as it was selling a growing percentage of its power to aluminum manufacturers that located on the Columbia only because cut-rate energy was available. Consumers became accustomed to paying half and using double the national average. Utilities, agricultural interests, and would-be ports clamored for more water development, and regional newspapers that had originally questioned the need for dams became cheerleaders for BPA and the Corps.

Ed Chaney, a consultant who has devoted most of his adult life to saving the salmon, says the fish have been victimized by an institutional "dance of denial," beginning with the poorly designed dams and continuing today. He first encountered that dance in 1968 , when the Corps brought John Day Dam on the Columbia on-line in time for Hubert Humphrey to dedicate it, even though its ladders weren't fully operative. An estimated 200,000 adult steelhead, chinook, and sockeye died in the high-nitrogen tailwater and washed up in windrows on the riverbanks. The dam was duly dedicated, and the Corps denied it had killed the fish. Some people said the real problem was the Indians.

Blaming Indians is a Northwest tradition. As the salmon dwindled in the 1960s, there were attempts to outlaw the Indian fisheries promised in perpetuity by treaty. Then a landmark federal court decision in 1974 repudiated the state of Washington's claim that Indian harvests were ruining the runs, and guaranteed the tribes 50 percent of the drastically diminished runs. Resentments flashed then and linger today, but the tribes have repeatedly cut back their catch--and in some places have no salmon to harvest at all.

Indians have lost the most. At a place called Celilo in the Long Narrows of the Columbia, the river once broke into a chaos of islands and waterfalls where the salmon had to surface and leap their way upstream. Perched on rocks and rickety scaffolding, Native Americans fished there for at least 10,000 years, spearing the big chinook and wresting them from the river in long-handled nets. They fished for themselves, and they fished for trade with other tribes that gathered annually from across the Northwest. The network of commerce centered at Celilo extended over the Rocky Mountains and into the Great Plains. It was one of the great culture centers of North America, it was based on salmon, and when The Dalles Dam closed in 1957, it was drowned beneath one more slackwater lake.

By the late 1970s, the tribes, fishery agencies, and salmon advocates were contemplating filing Endangered Species Act petitions on behalf of the most depleted runs. At the same time, Congress was considering a bail-out OF BPA's ill-fated program to build nine nuclear-power plants. The two causes converged in the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980, which established the four-state Northwest Power Planning Council. The act instructed the council to make energy conservation its first priority, and to protect and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the hydropower system. Salmon were guaranteed equitable treatment with other river users. Conservationists held off on the endangered-species petitions, hopeful that the council would work quickly to rescue the runs.

The council has banned hydropower development from critical habitat areas, enacted a successful salmon-restoration project on the Umatilla, accelerated the use of fish screens for agricultural diversions, and encouraged water and energy conservation. But on the crucial issue of main-stem passage, which Congress specifically instructed it to address, the council has largely failed. Part of this may be due to a lack of legal muscle--BPA, the Corps, and other agencies are required to take the council's recommendations into account, but not necessarily to follow them; thus the Corps could ignore the council's early appeals for turbine screens and smolt-bypass systems. But there has also been a failure of will and judgment. The council's most substantial main-stem action in the 1980s was a Snake River "water budget" aimed at storing water for springtime release to speed smolt migration to the sea. The budgeted quantity, however, was far less than biologists had prescribed, and water in the river rarely fulfilled even the budget's own inadequate objectives. "The system continued to operate for maximum power and profit," says Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club's Northwest office. "The fish got what was left over."

Ed Chaney, Bill Bakke of Oregon Trout, and a few others argued throughout the 1980s that nothing was changing for the fish except that they were disappearing. Nobody listened, though, until 1990, when the Shoshone-Bannock tribe of central Idaho petitioned for an endangered-species listing for the Snake River sockeye--the fish that now returns to Redfish Lake in single-digit numbers. Fish advocacy groups went to court to force an emergency listing from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency with responsibility for anadromous fish. By 1992 the agency had listed the sockeye as endangered and, responding to further petitions, had listed Snake River fall chinook and spring-summer chinook as threatened. (Lower Columbia coho, also proposed for protection, were determined to be extinct.) Work on a binding recovery plan for the runs was begun by NMFS, and will be issued in final form this year.

With BPA, the Corps, and hydrosystem beneficiaries suddenly interested in saving the salmon, the Northwest Power Planning Council approved a regional strategy in 1992. At the heart of the plan are two controversial and drastically different approaches to the problem of how to get smolt to the sea. One is to continue the existing practice, begun in the late 1970s, of collecting smolt from the bypass systems of up river dams, barging or trucking them downstream and releasing them into the Columbia below Bonneville. "Juvenile Fish Transportation" has been promoted aggressively by power, irrigation, and shipping interests. They point to seemingly glowing statistics: more than 95 percent of transported smolt survive the barge trip, and studies indicate that between 1.6 and 2.5 barged fish return as adults for every one that makes it through the dams.

But those figures show only that barging is a marginal improvement over running the gauntlet of dams----not that it can save and restore the runs. "They've been transporting fish for a decade and a half," says Jim Baker, the Sierra Club's Northwest Salmon Campaign coordinator. "If it works, why are Snake River salmon going extinct?" The stress of collection and transportation may be harder on them than on hatchery fish, and the barges are excellent disease incubators. The Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, a coalition of state, federal, and tribal agencies, reported earlier this year that fish transport can't replace in-river migration and may have harmed wild stocks.

Barging may have a place as a temporary measure, particularly in years of low river flow. But with the council's endorsement it is looking more like a permanent program. Is it desirable or even possible, conservationists ask, to "rescue" a species by separating it from its habitat? And even if it is possible, at what point does human intervention turn a wild species into a captive artifact? Instead of removing fish from their rivers, conservationists say, it's time to fix the rivers so that fish can live in them.

That is the aim of the other controversial measure in the council's salmon strategy. To improve smolt survival during spring migration, slackwater rivers must be allowed to flow freely. In theory, there are three ways of doing this. One is a radical option: to cut gated tunnels through the dams, enabling the river to run in its old channel in the spring. A second way is to release water from upstream storage and limit upstream withdrawals. The council's "water budget" was such an attempt, and its current plan calls for further flow increases to be obtained through upstream releases, water-efficiency improvements, and various tinkerings with agricultural water rights. But the Snake is a dryland river, and even if its watershed were squeezed of every drop--a prospect that makes Idaho farmers nervous--it could not provide enough additional water to restore the salmon runs.

That leaves the third option, a compromise championed by Ed Chaney, Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, and Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of 26 conservation and fishery groups that includes the Sierra Club. Under this plan the levels of the four Snake River reservoirs would be drawn down for two-and-a-half months during the spring migration, the dams spilling enough water to let the river run something like a river again. Smolt would pass the dams via existing bypasses and a gentle ride over the spillways. Barges couldn't move during this period, but the commodities involved are imperishables (mostly grain and wood products) that could be shipped by rail or truck. On the water-rich Columbia, only the John Day pool, at 76 miles much longer than the others, would have to be drawn down to the minimum level at which river traffic can operate. Some irrigators would need to extend their pump intakes; the cost would amount to a small increase in the federal subsidies they already receive.

Bonneville Power Administration originally claimed that changing the hydrosystem to protect salmon would force utility rates to skyrocket. More recently it announced a wholesale rate increase of about 20 percent by 1994, and tried to tie the hike to the cost of salmon recovery. In fact, only one-fifth of the increase will be salmon-related, and what little power production might be lost can easily be offset by switching to natural gas, exchanging energy with California, and conserving energy in a region that uses it with abandon. The agency is making a concerted effort to avoid drawdowns or any other alteration of business as usual. "With a $3 billion budget, BPA can pursue a major public-relations campaign," says Jim Baker. "And they've shown no aversion to spreading misinformation that amounts to disinformation." Ed Chaney is even blunter. "There are people who ought to be arrested for what they're doing," he says.

As it spreads its smokescreen, BPA ignores the economic devastation caused by the collapse of the basin's salmon runs. Communities from Salmon, Idaho, to Astoria, Oregon, to the coast of Alaska have been hurt or ruined as fish have disappeared. Commercial gillnet seasons on the lower Columbia once lasted months; now they're measured in weeks and sometimes days. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council very nearly closed the entire Northwest to coho fishing in 1992. Sport-fishing in Idaho used to support vigorous local economies; Idaho hasn't had a statewide salmon season since 1977. Restoring the runs to some measure of vitality, far from spelling doom, would amount to a long-term investment in the economic health of the Northwest.

The Corps of Engineers, BPA, and the power utilities are used to controlling the Columbia-Snake system, and they are loath to relinquish even a fraction of that control. The Corps, to its credit, seems to be growing more receptive to change, but BPA and the utilities are still doing the denial dance, blaming the salmon's demise on everything but the dams. It is true that salmon runs are in trouble up and down the Pacific Coast in many undammed rivers and streams; habitat degradation is probably the single most important cause of the general decline, and that problem has been insufficiently addressed in the Columbia Basin. But there is habitat in Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness that is little changed since the Pleistocene except in one particular: the streams are 90 percent empty of salmon. To restore and secure habitat without altering the dams' death-grip on the rivers, in the words of one Idaho fishery biologist, "is just pissing in the wind."

Will drawdowns save the fish? No one can promise that, but it's clear that business as usual will obliterate them, and that barging and tinkering with inadequate flow volumes, while they might preserve minimal populations, will not restore productive runs. "If there's another way to create the velocity those fish need, show us," says Cecil Andrus. "The fear-mongers downriver have been fighting our plan for two years now, but they've got no plan of their own."

A harder question is whether drawdowns will ever happen. In 1991 the Corps tried one out at Lower Granite Reservoir. The turbines ran, the dam was fine, and damage to marinas, port facilities, and highways was in every case permanently fixable. The Corps says it requires no more physical trials, and given that seeming willingness to proceed, a strong endorsement from the Northwest Power Planning Council might have gotten a drawdown program under way. But the bitterly divided power planners made no firm decision, voting only a very tentative approval of drawdowns by 1995. Few believe they will come to pass. At this point the council's spine is simply not stiff enough to overcome the resistance of BPA, the utilities, and all the other subsidized river interests that support the status quo.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, charged with administering the Endangered Species Act with regard to anadromous fish, seems headed down the same path--it could have ordered Snake River drawdowns in 1992, but declined. Ed Chaney's Northwest Resource Information Center, along with the Sierra Club and other members of Save Our Wild Salmon, has sued the agency.

Conservationists are confident that the law is on their side, and it may be that judicial intervention is their best immediate hope. In the longer term, prospects are mixed. Ed Chaney, who has spent 25 years working for the salmon, is not particularly hopeful: "In the '70s I thought the Indian treaty right would save the fish. In the '80s I thought the power council would save them. I thought for a while, in the '90s, that the endangered species listings would do it. Now I'm not so sure. We're up against a mindless ideological resistance to reality."

One hope lies with the people of the Northwest, who know and love the salmon as the most distinctive living feature of their region. Despite all the disinformation, the general public is joining conservationists, fishermen, and Native Americans in awakening to the salmon's plight.

The best hope, of course, lies with the heroic travelers themselves. The spawners in Marsh Creek, gently waving their tails, overcame enormous odds to complete their journey, one that began long before they hatched in the Marsh Creek gravel. It began before the first dam was built, before Indians ever fished at Celilo, long before the great ice ages that shaped the land as we know it. There are fossils in the Oregon desert of a ten-foot-long ancestral salmon that ran North American rivers 5 million years ago. Five million years of pioneering the watersheds and shape-shifting through time, adjusting to volcanic explosions and glacial advances, fertilizing barren gravels and basalts with the rich captured life of the sea, raising temperate jungles and mountain forests out of their bones and flesh. To know the salmon is to know the indomitable energy of life itself.

JOHN DANIEL is the author of The Trail Home (Pantheon, 1992) and Common Ground (Confluence Press, 1988).
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Title Annotation:threats to salmon in Columbia River basin
Author:Daniel, John
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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