Guest Opinions

We can still save wild salmon and steelhead

Salmon circle as they head from salt water in the Shilshole Bay into fresh water in Salmon Bay at the Ballard Locks in Seattle.
Salmon circle as they head from salt water in the Shilshole Bay into fresh water in Salmon Bay at the Ballard Locks in Seattle. AP

When I opened the newspaper box in Riggins, Idaho, there was plenty of river sand in my hair left over from rafting the Main Salmon. Then I started screaming my head off.

In the 1990s, as the director of Idaho Rivers United, I sometimes felt like a voice in the wilderness talking about the four dams on the Lower Snake River. That really changed on the day in 1997 the Idaho Statesman editorial board published “Dollars, Sense and Salmon.”

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A group of flabbergasted river rats were soon passing a newspaper around, backslapping and amazed. At least one person said we had finally turned around public opinion and the dams would soon be removed.

The Statesman’s courageous action gave fish advocates a jolt of hope — a glimpse of a future where destructive dams could be re-evaluated and river ecosystems restored. Twenty years later, the dams are still there.

There are even fewer wild salmon and steelhead now. Idaho still has thousands of river miles of beautiful riffles and healthy bugs and deep pools. Without a safe migration route to the ocean, this great habitat is still mostly empty.

But, other things have changed.

Luckily, an important change in dam management appears to have bought the fish some time. A judge ordered more water over the spillways. That helps move fish downstream. But climate change and rising water temperatures are making it harder for the fish to get home.

The economy has changed and the economics case for dam removal is stronger than ever. Clearly, the world’s great global trade routes have left commercial barging on the Lower Snake “high and dry.” Today’s technology provides new energy sources and more options for replacing the energy generated on the Lower Snake. These dams never had the ability to store water or control floods and still don’t.

The loss of Idaho salmon and steelhead touches more of the Northwest today. Lots of people care about salmon and many know that Puget Sound’s orca populations depend on Columbia River fish.

There are new political opportunities for change. The current governor of Washington appears more willing to pay attention to the problem. Even some members of Congress have wondered if a collaborative effort to address the real economic impacts of restoring the Lower Snake could succeed.

In 20 years it has become clearer that the prospects for fish survival may hinge on our ability to recreate a free-flowing river. That will require complicated engineering that could be facilitated by today’s greater computing power.

In 20 years I’ve floated the Main Salmon, Hells Canyon, the Middle Fork and the Lower Gorge many times. I know the spirit of the wild fish is still there, but it grows fainter every year.

The fish are strong and they haven’t changed. They know who they are. They will come back to Idaho when we come together to give them a path home.

Wendy Wilson lives in Boise and is now the executive director of the Snake River Alliance. wwilson@snakeriveralliance.org.

1997 column: It’s time to correct the mistakes of the past

This column by Wendy Wilson ran in August 1997:

The board of directors of Idaho Rivers United (a non-profit river conservation group) voted to support removal of the four lower Snake River dams over a year ago because our research showed that the dams weren’t worth saving. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and 25 years, there apparently is no way to correct the harm that these dams cause to Idaho’s wild ocean-going fish.

It is time to correct the mistakes of the past before extinction becomes the final solution. We commend The Idaho Statesman putting forth a clear analysis of the problem.

Our politicians have avoided making the tough decisions by hiding behind the lack of “scientific certainty.” Fishery scientists now agree that Idaho will never enjoy healthy, fishable populations of wild salmon and steelhead as long as the four lower Snake dams are in place. If left in place, these dams will eventually kill our hatchery programs for steelhead and salmon as well as our wild fish.

People without a stomach for change argue that the four lower Snake River dams can’t be changed because they contribute so much to the regional economy. The truth is that restored salmon and steelhead runs are worth far more than the meager economic contributions of the dams.

By retiring the dams, we get the blessings of dependable, sustainable fish runs, plus we stop hemorrhaging money on failed recovery measures and expensive corporate subsidies. Retiring the dams is an idea based on sound biology, responsible economics and our inescapable legal and moral obligation to restore the fish.

There is time to save the fish - if we begin now. Idahoans value our salmon and steelhead and know we have to act.

The crowds of anglers jamming the banks of the Little Salmon, South Fork Salmon and Boise rivers for their “last chance in this century” to hook a hatchery-reared chinook attest to our own deep connection with these fish. Poll after poll has shown that Idahoans are willing to do what is necessary to save them.

If only our politicians could bottle the courage of the fighting salmon and use it back in Washington, D.C., we could get the job done.

Members and allies of Idaho Rivers United are working to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ juvenile-fish barging program. We believe that taking the fish out of the river and sending them to the ocean in tankers and barges just isn’t natural or effective. Choosing between barging and grinding up the fish in the turbines is like choosing between arsenic and cyanide for your morning vitamins. We have to stop using both of these poisons if we expect to save our fish.

Some of our elected officials have taken a good beginning step by endorsing Gov. Phil Batt’s steelhead plan, which calls for the federal government to “wean itself away from juvenile-fish barging.” Getting the fish out of the barges and letting them migrate in the river is the first step towards restoration.

The next will be to restore the river by lowering some reservoirs and spilling water away from the turbines during the migration season so that the fish can get to the sea. We can save $800 million over the next several years just by taking this simple path.

Our politicians need to oppose the Army Corps of Engineers plans to squander taxpayer money over the next several years to “gold plate” the four lower Snake River dams by building fish screens that can only operate at full-pool and by retrofitting old turbines that ought to be retired.

In the long run we must stop throwing good money after bad and begin restoring a healthy river. Idaho Rivers United is at least one citizens’ group pledged towards that goal.

In 1997, Wendy L. Wilson was the executive director of Idaho Rivers United.

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