Finding solutions on the Snake River Dams

In Idaho by Shauna Sherard


By Rob Masonis


Lonesome Larry was the only sockeye to make it from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho’s Redfish Lake in 1992. That was only one year after Larry’s fellow Snake River sockeye salmon were protected under the Endangered Species Act because they were on a path to extinction.


Despite the passage of almost three decades and the expenditure of billions of dollars, Larry’s offspring continue to have few traveling companions on their 900 mile journey to Idaho. The same is true for all wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin, which have required protection from Endangered Species Act since the 1990s.


Today, recovery of Columbia and Snake River salmon remains a distant goal. By contrast, these were once the most abundant populations of salmon and steelhead in the world. This year, the numbers of wild steelhead returning to the Snake River are projected to be the lowest on record.


While there are several reasons for this lack of progress, including the complexity of the recovery task at hand, the most significant has been the lack of creative problem-solving. We have not focused on what is truly needed to make the major gains necessary to rebuild wild salmon and steelhead or figured out how to implement those solutions in a manner that provides the greatest benefits to the people of the Northwest. Instead, we have drawn battle lines and wasted time aggressively defending these positions.


The bill recently introduced in the United States House by five representatives from Oregon and Washington serves only to fuel the ongoing battle, not catalyze needed problem solving. If passed, it will put recovery even further out of reach.


In particular, the bill would override a federal court decision finding the federal government’s latest “salmon plan” insufficient and “lock-in” through 2022 the plan the court found deeply flawed.


The legislators’ primary motivation appears to be the court’s requirement that federal dam operators spill more water over hydropower dams to improve survival of juvenile salmon and steelhead making their way to the sea, which would have a small impact to power production.


Trout Unlimited strongly opposes the bill. But we do agree with the sponsors that, in the long run, the courtroom is not the place where this will be resolved. Since 2009, Trout Unlimited has been calling for a “solutions table,” supported and enabled by the region’s political leaders, where stakeholders can set aside positions and focus on a collaborative approach.


We are in good company. Several forward-thinking leaders from both sides of the political aisle, including Republican Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho, and former Democratic Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, have called for a forum in which solutions can be found.


We urge the bills’ sponsors to withdraw their legislation and redirect their efforts toward the creation of a solutions forum that can resolve this long-running, costly battle in a manner that works both for people and the irreplaceable wild salmon and steelhead of the Snake and Columbia rivers.


Stakeholders in other, similar long standing battles over water and fish –in the Yakima, Klamath, Penobscot, to name but 3—put down their swords and took up cooperation and found innovative paths forward which benefited everyone, including wild fish. It is past time for the stakeholders and political leaders of the Columbia Basin to take the same high road.