Farmers and Salmon Advocates Agree: It’s Time to Talk about the Snake River Dams
By Jodi Helmer
Each year, millions of tons of grain make their way along what was once one of our wildest river systems, the Columbia-Snake River. Four dams — the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor — erected between 1955 and 1975, ease the way for massive barges bound for ports on the West Coast, and ultimately, markets in Asia. Soybeans, wood products, mineral bulks, and automobiles also travel the river by barge. But outnumbering all other cargo is the soft white wheat grown by farmers from 11 states.
Fourth-generation farmer Bryan Jones is one of those who depends on the Snake River barges to transport wheat from his farm near Colfax, Washington, to a shipping port in Portland, Oregon. Transporting crops via rail or truck, which Jones relies on to get canola, mustard, and cattle to market, are more expensive and less efficient than barge, he argues. In fact, according to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, it would require 35 train cars or 134 trucks to move the volume of wheat carried on a single barge.
Construction of the Ice Harbor Dam in 1959. US Army Corps of Engineers
"When the dams went in, we closed down the rail lines, and, in doing so, barging was the only way to get our grain to market," Jones says. "We don't have the infrastructure to start using rail again, [and] we can't afford to pay another 50 cents a bushel to ship our grain."
Nevertheless, Jones acknowledges the steep toll the dams have taken on salmon and is part of a bipartisan, multi-stakeholder coalition searching for fresh ideas to help save them — while supporting farmers, too. Its work is increasingly urgent: From populations numbering 130,000 fish in the 1950s, wild Snake River spring Chinook salmon dropped to approximately 5,800 in 2017. Thirteen populations are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and all four salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake River Basin are at risk of extinction, according to NOAA Fisheries. The dwindling number of salmon is having ripple effects across the food chain. In Washington State, only 73 Southern Resident orcas remain, due in part to the lack of Chinook salmon, their main prey.
In response, wildlife advocates are renewing calls to restore the lower Snake River by breaching the four dams. A recent report released by the NW Energy Coalition, with support from NRDC, found that a mixed portfolio of solar, wind, energy efficiency, demand-response, and storage can replace the power the four Snake River dams contribute to the Northwest. Such a change would increase the system's reliability and cost ratepayers little to nothing. A free-flowing Snake River would also safeguard salmon from increasingly hot, even deadly, water temperatures, according to modeling done by Columbia Riverkeeper. "We must break the political logjam around this issue. If we don't, the fish are cooked," says Giulia C.S. Good Stefani, a senior attorney in NRDC's Nature Program.
"After looking at the science and economics, our coalition endorsed removing the four dams," says Sam Mace, inland Northwest project director of the nonprofit Save Our Wild Salmon. "It's not the only thing that needs to be done to restore the [salmon] runs to healthy, harvestable numbers, but it has to be the cornerstone of any plan that is going to be successful."
The push to restore the river by removing the earthen portion of the dams has been controversial. More than half of U.S. wheat exports are shipped on the Columbia–Snake River system, making it the top wheat export gateway in the nation and the third largest in the world. As a result, farmers have the most to lose, according to Sam White, chief operating officer for Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative.
"You've got people who say, 'Remove the dams at all costs; we want them out, we want to save our salmon,' and then you've got people who are using the river to move products saying, 'No, [the dams] are important to my livelihood,'" White says. "The closer you are to the river, the more economical it is to use the barge."
But White also estimates that just 40 percent of the region's crops are shipped via barge, down from a high of 80 percent a decade ago. Local farmers have diversified their crops, planting canola, peas, lentils and garbanzo beans, which are shipped through alternate ports reached via trucks or rail. And if rail transportation were built out further, Jones says, farmers like him might be able to abandon barge shipping altogether.
Already, there is some progress on this front, and models to follow elsewhere in the Columbia Basin, as with the McCoy grain terminal shuttle train loading facility near Oakesdale, Washington, completed in 2013 with investment from agricultural groups, including the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative. "More companies are trying to make loop rail systems where they can store 100 [railcars] until they're filled with grain and could be economically shipped down to Portland," Jones says. "But that's going to mean building new rail lines or updating older rail lines. A lot of that depends on what finances are put in to [help] companies build rail lines, build storage capacity, and all the things necessary to be able to hold and ship grain."
Jones believes that offering farmers subsidies to help them adapt to the additional expenses of shipping their grain if dams are removed would be much cheaper than maintaining aging dams. With these supports in place, more farmers would be willing to make the shift, he posits, adding, "I'm pro-dam removal but we have to keep farmers whole."
After decades of disagreement, there seems to be a growing awareness on both sides that finding a compromise is essential. At the annual Environmental Conference at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University in April, participants came together to discuss the theme, "Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community: Can We Come Together?"
In his lunchtime address, Republican congressman Mike Simpson from Idaho acknowledged that the $16 billion investment in salmon recovery from Bonneville Power Administration, the government agency responsible for delivering electricity from the dams, wasn't working. "I am going to stay alive long enough to see salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho," he went on to say. "You cannot address the salmon issue without addressing dams…they are interwoven."
Good Stefani, who was a panelist at the conference, met with Simpson this past summer. He's been working with partners around the region, meeting with leaders and decision makers to discuss ways to identify solutions that work for both farmers and fishermen, should the dams come out. "Idaho has had abysmal salmon runs, and that's a huge problem, not just for the ecosystem," she said. "It's also an economic hit to the state. Family and local businesses have paid the price — all the way up the river from Lewiston to Orofino to Riggins to Challis to Salmon."
One official from Idaho's Department of Labor estimated that salmon and steelhead fishing brings in about $8.61 million per month to Clearwater and Nez Perce counties alone. But in September, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission had to close all steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River and severely limit fishing on the Snake and Salmon rivers on account of the struggling population. These developments have the local outdoors industry deeply concerned. Last month, a group of about 60 Idaho outfitters and guides met in the Clearwater River Casino near Lewiston to talk about the toll of the closures on their communities.
Idaho tribes, too, have paid incalculable costs. McCoy Oatman, vice chair of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, spoke as one of the panelists at the Boise conference. He reminded participants of the importance of salmon as a food source, saying, "we're past the 11th hour" for these fish. "We as tribal people know that."
The Shoshone-Bannock tribes in eastern Idaho have long been active on the issue. They filed a federal petition in 1990 asking that the Snake River sockeye salmon be listed as endangered. Chad Colter, director of the fish and wildlife department for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation, notes that tribes harvesting Chinook in the Salmon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha rivers recently faced catch limits of three salmon, total, for their entire communities.
"The subsistence path we once followed and our reliance upon the natural riverine ecosystem for that subsistence can no longer be followed or relied upon to provide for our most basic needs of food and water," Colter says. "As a hunting people, we have gone from relying on fish runs that provided yearlong subsistence resources for our communities to ingesting merely ceremonial amounts of salmon during a short window each hunting season."
The tribes, according to Colter, want the dams on the Lower Snake River removed to ensure tribal members can harvest salmon from populations that are sustainable, resilient, and abundant.
Taking the Long View
In Washington State, tribes and conservation groups have ample experience in advocating for dam removal — and maintaining the patience to see their efforts through. Once the decision was made to remove the Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam, it took two decades before the final section of the dams were removed in 2014, but the impacts to the river ecosystem were immediate. Research showed that habitats were restored; salmon, steelhead, and trout repopulated the river; and new species moved in.
Mace believes that sharing those success stories might lead more opponents of dam removal to reconsider their positions. "I have been trying to extend a hand and have conversations with some of the folks that have been traditionally opposed [to breaching the dams], to the communities who use the benefits of the dams, to see if we could come to some kind of understanding at least and see whether there would be a willingness to figure out some solutions," she says. "We are seeing people take more of a long view. They're realizing that the salmon crisis won't go away unless we take some bold actions."
In the meantime, Good Stefani takes heart in the dialogues being had at forums like the Boise conference. "When we talk face-to-face, we confront the uncomfortable fact that finding a solution is complicated and there is no villain here," she says. "We have to stop fighting about who has more to lose and start asking what everybody needs. We all want our kids to be able to float and fish these rivers, to know that increasingly rare kind of abundance."
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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