River Basin Threatens Native Wildlife

Edward Abbey's novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" immortalized the phrase "Damn Dam!" as a battle cry in the environmentalist movement. In both casual and scientific language, environmentalists have branded dams as fatal to river ecosystems. Others call dams a source of renewable energy, contrasting them with carbon dioxide-spewing oil and coal plants, other common sources of electricity.

The Columbia River Basin, with over 200 dams, is the most dammed river system in the United States. Hydropower - electricity harnessed from water held in and released from dams - is the region's main energy source. Controversy over hydropower's sustainability finds a battleground here, not only because of its large presence but because the dams threaten an animal identified with the very character of the Pacific Northwest: the salmon. As their numbers sink toward extinction, salmon haven't responded to efforts towards reversing the decline. The drastic step of removing four dams from the lower Snake River in the Columbia Basin is being considered as a last resort in saving salmon, but such a divisive move, even if necessary, might never be made.

This endangered mascot of the Northwest is a fish accustomed to change. In its lifecycle, a salmon travels thousands of miles, moves from fresh to saltwater and back again, changes color and can even alter shape. Salmon numbers in the Columbia Basin are at dangerously low levels and are sinking. One species, the Sockeye, has virtually disappeared. The National Academy of Science confirms that 10 to 16 million salmon returned each year to spawn in the region prior to the arrival of white settlers. The Chinook salmon alone had a traditional run of 1.5 million adults but now averages 6,223 over the last 10 years.

Pacific salmon are born in freshwater streams or lakes, hundreds of miles from the ocean. As young fish, they travel downriver to the sea, maturing and avoiding predators. After adapting to the saltwater environment, they spend one to five years in the ocean, roaming as far as Japanese waters. After a long return trip to their stream or lake of origin, salmon reproduce and die, their bodies adding important marine-based nutrients to the rivers.

Besides intuitively traveling more than many humans ever do, salmon have adapted to change on a long-term scale, returning to the Northwest watershed after the last three ice ages exiled them. One of the first animals to repopulate the nearly lifeless post-glacial watershed, salmon have proven determined and durable. However, all five salmon species - Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye, and Pink - found in the Pacific Northwest are now listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered or threatened. Statistics show that dams are to blame for much of the decline in salmon populations. Will concrete and clay destroy a species that survived the comings and goings of glaciers?

With the first white settlers in the Northwest came the idea of damming the area's abundant rivers. Dams serve many other purposes besides creating electricity, including flood control, water storage and floating ships to far-upstream ports. Many dams are accompanied by locks, which raise and lower water levels, lifting ships to ports at higher elevations. Since the early days of the Northwest's dams, dams have also had fish ladders, devices that give salmon and other migratory fish small underwater steps to help them reach the top of a dam.

In its lifecycle, a salmon travels thousands of miles, moves from fresh to saltwater and back again, changes color and can even alter shape.

Even with continual improvements in fish ladders "every obstacle like this (dam) is going to take a certain percentage of fish and kill them. That's just the way it is," said Jay Wells, program director of information at the Ballard Locks. Wells refers to the difficulties of swimming up a 200-foot dam and also to downstream dangers like avoiding the locks' razor-sharp drainage pipes.

While the challenge of climbing dams can exhaust salmon and, scientists speculate, reduce their fertility, juveniles known as "smolt" heading downstream are also at risk. Complex technology has been developed to aid smolt in safely passing dams. Underwater strobe lights scare fish away from deadly drainage tunnels, fish are removed from the river and barged downstream by truck or boat, and devices known as "smolt slides" or "fish cannons" draw them to the safer surface waters of locks.

Solutions like barging can quickly bring large numbers of fish safely to the ocean. However, according to Rob Masonis of American Rivers, these fish are ill-adjusted to ocean life, and might not have spent sufficient time in their home rivers to develop the instincts to find the way back to spawn. Despite good survival rates in the beginning, fewer barged fish than non-barged fish ever survive to return and reproduce, Masonis said.

Does this indicate that measures like strobe lights and fish cannons are helping non-barged fish to safely complete their lifecycle? Masonis says no, partially because dams also create indirect but fatal problems for salmon by drastically altering or eliminating their habitat. Dams create warmer, shallower waters that can kill temperature-sensitive salmon, large fish that need a certain depth of water to reproduce. By drying up some traditional nesting areas and destroying others, dams reduce salmon breeding grounds.

To maintain a viable salmon population in any breeding ground, two breeding adults must return for every 100 smolt that head for the sea. To grow in numbers, four to six of every 100 smolt must return. Despite a reduction in nesting areas, many breeding grounds are lucky to get the minimum number for population maintenance.

Dams create warmer, shallower waters that can kill temperature-sensitive salmon, large fish that need a certain depth of water to reproduce. By drying up some traditional nesting areas and destroying others, dams reduce salmon breeding grounds.

Jim Anderson, professor of fisheries at the University of Washington, said that there are two causes behind changes in the Salmon population - the "climate effect" and the "human effect."

The climate effect describes the normal fluctuation of numbers of fish due to natural variations in climate from year to year - some years are warmer and drier, others are cooler and wetter. Salmon thrive in cool, wet climates. Even if the effects of damming kill an increasing number of salmon, a cool, wet year could make the number of salmon higher than the previous year, giving the impression of a growing population.

The human effect is the shrinking of the salmon population because of harvesting, damming and other human actions. Graphs of the salmon population show some decrease in numbers prior to the construction of most dams in the area, with sharply decreasing numbers following dam construction.

Combined, the human and climate effects cause the number of salmon to fluctuate, though always decreasing in the end, Anderson said.

Saving the salmon might be the one thing for which a region dependent on its bounty of hydropower would do the unthinkable: remove a dam.

Salmon are more than just an ecological casualty environmentalists blame on dams. They are an integral part of local communities: Native American tribes hold salmon sacred. The regional economy has depended upon them - entire cities were built on the salmon fishing industry. Known as a "keystone" species in the native ecosystem, up to 120 species are dependent on nutrients provided by salmon, said Mark Glyde of the Northwest Energy Coalition.

With the salmon population in mind, many groups and individuals are advocating the removal of four dams owned by the Army Corps of Engineers on the lower Snake River in the Columbia River Basin. Together harnessing about five percent of the Northwest's power, the dams are mainly used to move ships upriver to Lewiston, Idaho, a seaport hundreds of miles inland. Only one dam stores water for agricultural purposes.

Advocates of removal believe that the duties of the four dams can be filled in other ways, and that they would be easy to remove. The dams are not used for flood control and would likely cause few problems once demolished. However, the Army Corps of Engineers puts a one billion dollar price tag on demolition, a price that the federal government must approve. Further, the shape and flow of the river has been modified for so long that no knows what the river will be like if the dams are demolished.

Though dam removal is proposed with the idea of giving endangered salmon a chance at survival, lawyer Peter Dykstra pointed out that that removing the dams might actually threaten other endangered species and be in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Another difficulty: the public is especially protective of power sources like dams after recent shortages in other western states.

There is a strong possibility of recovery for Columbia Basin salmon if the four lower Snake dams are removed. The only undammed stretch of the Columbia watershed, the 140 mile Hanford stretch, is also the only breeding ground that boasts a viable salmon population - an ironic side-effect of Hanford's isolation as a nuclear research site.

Undammed, the lower Snake would be about four times that amount of unblocked river. With removal of the four dams, the group Save our Wild Salmon estimates the reduced stress on salmon, improved habitat, and increased number of breeding grounds would likely boost salmon numbers by 200 percent. For the most endangered salmon, the huge Chinook and smaller Coho, this increase could mean a return from the brink of extinction.

Such a revitalized salmon stock might return north coast fishing to its former prosperity. Twenty-year veteran of commercial fishing Jeremy Brown estimates that as many as 15,000 jobs would be re-created, and old fishing towns revitalized. However, this kind of recovery would take years. In these uncertain economic times, the certainty of a huge price tag for dam removal and the probable loss of trade with Lewiston may be the money that talks.

People like Brown paint a bleak picture of the river ecosystem if the Snake dams aren't removed. "Dams are not renewable energy," Brown said. "In 200 years the Columbia River will be a series of concrete waterfalls and will have lost all viability in an orgy of cheap electricity."

The fate of the salmon, an economic, spiritual and traditional icon of the Northwest, might hinge on one question, as Brown points out: exactly how renewable a resource is hydroelectric power?

Mattie Hutton is a sophomore majoring in History and Communications at Stanford University. A California girl, she loves redwoods, and works with the Redwood Action Team at Stanford (RATS). She also writes for several campus papers.

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