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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Consensus on Census: A Salmon Solution?

Air Date: Week of

A number of varying interests in the quest to keep salmon spawning and hydropower in place for residents along the Columbia River may have found a new and worthwhile compromise. Based on a report by independent scientists commissioned by the four-state coalition Northwest Power Planning Council, a new science and way of looking at the salmon crisis is emerging. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU in Seattle explains.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest used to be so flush with salmon each spring that people said you could cross the river on the back of salmon. But in recent years that flood of fish has dwindled to a trickle. This spring officials counted only about 250,000 salmon on the Snake River: by far the lowest number in history. For years people have disagreed about what's necessary to save the salmon, especially when it comes to the massive and lucrative hydroelectric dams that block the fishes' migration. But a new study by a team of independent scientists is gaining unusual support from many sides in the dispute, and it may help forge a consensus for action. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: Up till now, much of the controversy over dwindling salmon runs has focused on whether proposals to restore the runs are scientifically sound. But the new study by 9 independent scientists may help end the stalemate over science. The team looked closely at the migration of young salmon from the mountains of Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. In the course of their research they made some disturbing findings.

WILLIAMS: Some of the fish that are being observed have no food in them. So they do look like they're starving.

SCHMIDT: Rick Williams is an Idaho fisheries biologist and the chair of the scientific team. He says one reason the fish may be starving is that some of the deep reservoirs created by dams on the Columbia system have destroyed critical shallow water habitat along the river's edge, where the fish traditionally rest and feed. He says if these salmon runs are to recover, some stretches of the Columbia must function more like a natural river.

WILLIAMS: We're not calling for the Columbia River to be brought back to a pristine state. That's probably not socially or economically acceptable and might not even be possible ecologically. But what we need is basically more high quality habitat.

SCHMIDT: To recreate this habitat, scientists favor permanently lowering the level of one or even several reservoirs to create shallow free-flowing stretches. And floodgates should be periodically opened to mimic natural spring floods, which would scour gravel beds and restore degraded riverbank habitat. The idea, says Rick Williams, is to give the salmon more safe havens as they move through an environment made hostile by the dams.

WILLIAMS: And if you look at high quality habitat like beads on a string, right now we have very few beads and a lot of string. And the beads are very poorly connected. What we need is to create more habitat which would be to put more beads on this string, and to make the distances or connections between them easier or shorter.

SCHMIDT: The study was commissioned by the Northwest Power Planning Council, which represents the 4 Northwest states. The conclusions are only preliminary, but so far Council Members like what they hear. John Etchart of Montana is Chairman of the Power Planning Council.

ETCHART: This is the freshest, cleanest, most comprehensive and thorough look at this problem ever, and I don't know -- if this isn't good science or the beginning of good science, I don't know how you get it.

SCHMIDT: In the past, Mr. Etchart has sided with industry against the lowering of reservoir levels. He says he wasn't convinced by the original reason for draw downs: to help speed up the flow of the river and flush migrating salmon to the ocean.

ETCHART: We may well have been barking up the wrong tree, and this is a new idea, a new concept about what the fish might really need, which is to say not a quick trip to the ocean but a healthy habitat on the way down.

SCHMIDT: Even commercial interests have expressed tentative support for the scientific group's conclusions. Bruce Lovelin is President of the Columbia River Alliance, a group which represents utilities, ports, and barge operators on the Columbia.

LOVELIN: We are pleased. This looks at the whole salmon crisis in a whole different way. Looks at it from a basin-wide perspective and try to use the best available science to move this, the Columbia/Snake River system, back into a healthier system.

SCHMIDT: Still, commercial groups warn that what scientists say is best for salmon may not be best for the region. For instance, if reservoir levels are dropped, barges may have trouble navigating. Irrigators might have to build new pumping stations, and there might be less water available for power production. But Washington Power Planning Council member Mike Kreidler says debating the costs and benefits of a salmon recovery plan rather than whether it's scientifically sound is a major step in the right direction.

KREIDLER: And now it's going to be a real question. Are we willing to belly up to the bar and pay for what's necessary here, make the sacrifices that it's going to take in order to keep salmon?

SCHMIDT: Even if the answer to this question is a resounding yes, there is another factor to consider: time. Scientists say unless the region acts quickly, endangered salmon runs in the Columbia Basin are unlikely to survive into the next century. For Living on Earth I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.



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