By Tom Stuart
Last summer, more than a million fall chinook salmon returned to the Columbia River. This blessing for the Columbia and its fishing towns has lessons for Idaho, where returns of our most valuable salmon, spring/summer chinook, were poor in 2013 and have now been poor three years in a row.
First, a million fall chinook in the Columbia shows Idaho the sweet promise of what we could have. Fishing was great for people and businesses on the Columbia this year. And large numbers of uncaught salmon gave back to the circle with their deaths, nourishing their next generation and all other life along the river. Imagine 400,000 wild spring/summer chinook — 10 times this year’s return — streaming regularly into the heart of Idaho. Imagine the boon to people and towns. This isn’t nostalgic reverie. It can happen, with good policies.
Second, most of those fall chinook returned to the Columbia’s Hanford Reach. Hanford Reach has two qualities critical for salmon: it flows freely, and its salmon have only four dams to deal with as they migrate to and from the ocean. Its salmon have a living river and face half the dams Idaho’s salmon do.
Third, Hanford Reach salmon have benefited since 2006 from regular water spills over their four dams each summer, moving ocean-bound young salmon the safest way possible. This moderate but guaranteed spill occurs because Idaho fishermen and the Nez Perce Tribe, among others, won it by court injunction in 2005. It’s been in effect for eight years, and it is working.
Of course, Idaho’s salmon and steelhead have also benefited from these regular spills. But with eight dams to get past, the benefits are more a holding pattern against extinction than a truly restorative measure. Most scientists agree that restoring the lower Snake River, by removing four unnecessary dams, is the best restorative measure.
Right now, the lower Snake dams, and their damage to Idaho salmon, remain. So, Idaho fishing groups are focused first on expanding spill at the eight dams between Idaho and the ocean. After eight years’ proven success from the moderate spill levels ordered by the court, science, common sense and business sense agree that the smart step is to expand spill for five to 10 years. This will further boost salmon survival and also test how much spill alone can do to put salmon on a path to recovery.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed an expanded spill test for the Snake and Columbia and is asking for federal support for it. The most recent salmon plan, released by NOAA Fisheries Jan. 17, does not include expanded spill; we are disappointed, and this serious omission and other shortcomings in the plan may force us back into court.
Free-flowing rivers work. Idaho hosts 5,000 miles of free-flowing salmon habitat, the most in the lower 48. But eight dams, not two or four, choke access to Idaho. As long as they stand, lesson three from Hanford Reach fall chinook applies: Spill works, and a several-year test of expanded spill, across different water years, should occur at federal dams now. The NW Energy Coalition, which has a better track record on spill costs than dam agencies do, says costs are relatively small and affordable. Our best salmon scientists and most experienced fishermen project that more spill will bring more salmon.
Some scientists believe expanded spill could help salmon enough to take lower Snake dam removal off the table. We doubt it, but there’s a way to find out. If you need a reason, look at what a million fall chinook did last year for fishing, fishing towns and the river itself on the Columbia.
Tom Stuart is a longtime board member of Idaho Rivers United and the current board chair of the national Save Our Wild Salmon coalition.