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Federal Agencies Criticized for Not Enforcing Laws That Protect Salmon

Salmon populations are struggling on the West Coast despite laws meant to protect them. Some blame the Endangered Species Act, but others say federal agencies are to blame for failing to enforce regulations.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
This July 1, 1999 picture shows the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River near Burbank, Wash. A recent court ruling will make federal agencies look closely at the impact on salmon populations from four Snake River dams.Jackie Johnston, AP

Salmon are struggling to survive all along the West Coast, where runs that historically numbered in the millions of fish have dwindled into the thousands or even dozens. Environmental laws that have been put in place to see that these fish remain healthy and plentiful are not working in many places. While some people have argued that the Endangered Species Act itself is flawed and not sufficiently designed to protect species, others believe the problem comes from the people who are supposed to be enforcing the regulations.

Environmentalists say federal agencies have neglected their duties to protect salmon along the Columbia River, Klamath and Sacramento basins in order to better serve industrial users of the river, especially dam operators and farmers.

“There’s been a long history here of failure on the part of the federal government to protect salmon that are threatened by the hydro system,” says Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Seattle-based group Save Our Wild Salmon.

His group’s member organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Nez Perce tribe and numerous fishing industry groups, sued the federal government’s fishery agency in 2014 for writing a Snake River salmon recovery plan that they considered to violate the Endangered Species Act and illegally ignore the needs of salmon.

In May, this camp of salmon activists scored a major legal victory when a federal district judge took their side. The judge reviewing the lawsuit determined that the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, must look seriously in coming years at removing four dams on the lower Snake River as part of their responsibilities to abide by the Endangered Species Act and restore salmon populations.

Northwest River Partners, a coalition of farmers, ports, utility companies and other riverside businesses, immediately balked at the ruling in correspondences with the media. The group has argued that the Endangered Species Act is at fault for the dismal state of salmon, not the agencies overseeing the fish – and certainly not hydroelectric dams, to which many of Northwest River Partners’ members, especially utilities, are closely tied.

Michael Milstein, an information officer with the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the lower Snake River dams aren’t really blocking the salmon since they have been fitted with fish ladders to allow adult salmon to swim past as they migrate upriver to spawn. There are also systems in place, like minimum requirements for water spill over the dams, designed to help juveniles migrate downstream.

But Bogaard says these fish passage systems don’t work very well, and there is no question that the dams on the lower Snake River have done their damage to Chinook and sockeye salmon. They create warm reservoirs in which fish die from the high temperatures or simply get lost in the still waters – very unlike the rivers they evolved to navigate. Only 1 percent of the 4,000 Snake River sockeye that entered freshwater last year made it past these dams and successfully spawned.

The dams, environmentalists argue, must go – and the economic loss might be minimal. The dams produce just 3 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity, according to Bogaard. He says the region now has a 15 to 17 percent surplus of energy. Moreover, the dams were initially built in part to provide slack water for barging of goods – an industry that has been largely replaced by rail transport.

Bogaard says the Endangered Species Act is soundly written. It is the agencies meant to abide by the law’s requirements that are at fault.

The lower Snake River below Little Goose Dam is seen in this Sept. 21, 1999 photo, taken near Starbuck, Wash. (Jackie Johnston, AP)

The lower Snake River below Little Goose Dam is seen in this Sept. 21, 1999 photo, taken near Starbuck, Wash. (Jackie Johnston, AP)

“The law offers everything that’s needed to protect fish,” he said. “It’s just that the agencies are dragging their feet, not wanting to comply.”

If the dams are eventually removed, reviving the Snake River’s salmon runs should be relatively easy compared to such goals in other seriously degraded river systems.

That’s because the river portions where the salmon used to spawn are still intact – 5,500 river miles of gravel laden stream bed where hundreds of thousands of salmon could potentially lay and fertilize their eggs.

“It’s great habitat,” Bogaard says. “It doesn’t need extensive restoration like a lot of watersheds do. All it needs is fish.”

But salmon have been mostly unable to reach this section of the watershed since the late 1960s, when construction of four dams began on the lower Snake in order to provide electricity for residents of the Pacific Northwest. Bogaard says salmon runs crashed by 90 percent immediately after the construction of the dams.

Milstein notes that other factors have contributed to the widespread loss of salmon. In an email exchange, he explained that salmon runs “actually began declining before the dams as fishing (there were canneries in Astoria) logging, mining, development” and other factors took their toll. “Salmon recovery involves addressing not only the dams but also the many other impacts across the salmon life cycle,” he writes. “For instance, much effort is going into restoring habit and that is showing results.”

But there is a vast swath of area almost entirely inaccessible to salmon, thanks to the dams. Of particular interest to Bogaard and other environmentalists are streams and lakes at more than 7,000 feet of elevation in Idaho. Sockeye used to spawn here, and Bogaard says this high-altitude habitat will be especially important as global warming heats up lower-lying watersheds. Some biologists have guessed that the proposed dam removal could boost the Snake’s salmon and steelhead numbers by more than 200,000 fish each year – a massive gain, roughly equaling the total number of Chinook that spawn in California’s Sacramento River each year.

It isn’t as though the federal government hasn’t already been considering salmon and their travails for years. The Endangered Species Act requires that these agencies provide conditions that meet the basic needs of salmon populations. So, they have spent huge sums of money assisting the fish in their migrations up and down the blockaded rivers while also restoring damaged habitats in upriver tributaries and in the Columbia River’s estuary.

The way Bogaard sees it, the agencies have entertained virtually all ideas for how to rebuild salmon numbers, except for dam removal. These efforts have cost the public about $15 billion since the 1990s.

“Without concession of the hydro projects, this work has done nothing,” Bogaard says. “Not a single salmon run has been delisted.”

In fact, since the 1990s, the number of endangered or threatened salmon runs in the Columbia system – once the most productive salmon river in the world – has gone from four to 13.

The May court ruling requires the federal government to write a new recovery plan for Columbia system salmon over the next few years. Dam removal is likely to be written into the documents, Bogaard says. He expects the public to rally for the fish.

“There has long been a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of removing a dam,” Bogaard says. “The dams on the Columbia and the Snake were like the Pyramids. Why would we ever want to remove them? But that viewpoint is changing. Now, if we have to choose between wild salmon and a few low-value dams, I think people will choose salmon.”

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