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Cutting the Noose From the Salmon's Neck

by David James Duncan
Fly Fishing Catalog 2003

The Pacific Ocean covers 70 million square miles of this planet. A vast network of birthing rivers is needed to fill a biologically meaningful portion of so great a sea with salmon. One of the most crucial of such networks is the Columbia/Snake river system, a single great Y-shaped flow, each wing of the Y a thousand miles in length, draining 260,000 square miles of continent all told.

The entire salmon and steelhead population of the Columbia wing was destroyed in a day, fifty years ago, by the Grand Coulee Dam. The Snake wing is now the only significant salmon sanctuary left in this system. Thanks to the Wilderness Act, hundreds of its tributaries remain intact and healthy. Yet system-wide salmon extinction is predicted by the year 2017. The problem is the infamous lower Snake River dams. A 130-mile corridor of flaccid, desert-heated, predator-filled slackwater and four killing sets of turbines sit between the Pacific and the salmon's vast wild refuge, killing up to 97% of ocean-bound juveniles and 40% of returning adults every year.

In just 25 years the dams have wiped out 90% of the system's salmon, extirpating many discrete strains. Three billion taxpayer dollars have been spent "techno-fixing" the dams, yet every surviving salmon is endangered. Hatcheries cannot replace these salmon. The "man-made" strains are essentially just batches of identical first-cousins, forced to inbreed till they self-destruct due to technological incest. It is wild stocks alone that give hatchery and net-pen salmon their fleeting viability. Without wild salmon in a river system, there are soon no salmon.

An industrial economy can only remain profitable by achieving lasting balance with the natural economy that supports it. A majority of Americans, including editorial boards of scores of major newspapers, now embrace this view. The New York Times, for instance, in April 2000, called the lower Snake dams "a colossal ecological mistake" and states that "an unprejudiced calculation of costs and benefits" would force Congress to fund their breaching. When ex-Senator Slade Gorton saw this editorial, he responded with a tirade in the Times, claiming that breaching the dams would "destroy the way of life in eastern Washington, eliminate our transportation system, raise electricity rates and cost our farmers their irrigation water."

I have bad news for Mr. Gorton: in September 2002 the Rand Corporation – a conservative research group of sterling reputation among Republicans and Democrats alike – completed an in-depth study of Northwest energy issues, including exhaustive analysis of the four dams' removal. The report concludes that removing the lower Snake River dams could in fact have a positive economic impact, bringing new jobs and fresh economic activity in eastern Washington and the entire Northwest.

The Snake River dams are Cold War relics. They were commissioned by a 1955 Congress to power Hanford City as it built plutonium triggers for a nuclear arsenal aimed at the USSR. They were opposed by President Eisenhower, by the Army Corps that later built them, by the region's Indian tribes, the West Coast's multi-billion-dollar fishing industry, and the majority of the Northwest populace. In the quarter-century since they came on line, nine-tenths of the inland West's wild salmon have been destroyed, as feared.