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."
- Why Does Climate Change Matter to the Columbia River? - EcoWatch ›
- Alarming 'Salmon Extinction Act' Passes in U.S. House - EcoWatch ›
A small group led by Republicans in Congress spearheaded a bill that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. If the bill becomes law, it could lead to the eventual extinction of wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers—iconic species in the Pacific Northwest that the federal government is required by law to protect.
House Resolution 3144 seeks to overturn multiple federal court decisions that protect endangered salmon and steelhead. It undermines bedrock environmental laws and forbids any action that might reduce power generation at Columbia and Snake River dams without an act of Congress—from spilling more water over dams in the spring to help endangered fish migrate, to studying the possibility of removing the four aging lower Snake River dams.
Further, it mandates that salmon populations be managed based on a 2014 federal plan that was rejected in two court decisions as being illegal, for not doing enough to save the fish from extinction.
"HR 3144 is a giant step backwards in our region's effort to restore salmon populations," said Todd True, an Earthjustice attorney who has been at the forefront of this issue for more than two decades. "The entire goal of the bill is to circumvent the law and the courts, because a few legislators want to put a narrow set of economic interests ahead of the broad support in our region for salmon restoration. They have inserted themselves into the process, without considering the true consequences—for the fish, our energy future, or the Northwest economy."
Rick Williams, a longtime independent conservation biologist and research associate at the College of Idaho, also described the bill as a "step backward," for forestalling any progress on a scientifically sound salmon management plan and attempting to restrict spill. "Studies are very clear that spill (up to the nitrogen gas saturation level) gets juvenile fish past hydro projects with decreased mortality and gets them to the estuary more quickly, in a timeframe that mimics their historical migration time," Williams explained. "This means higher survival rates and greater returns."
"The whole bill is based on false choices—on the premise that we have to choose between dams or salmon, when there are robust, affordable energy choices and we can have both," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
Joel Kawahara, a commercial salmon fisherman in Quilcene, Wash., is a board member of the Coastal Trollers Association and Alaska Trollers Association. "The bill's co-sponsors are pitting Northwest fishers and farmers against each other," Kawahara observed. "We're both food producers; our communities and our businesses are both important. We expect our elected officials to bring people together and work on solutions—such as the Klamath Basin Settlement and the recently formed Columbia Basin Partnership. But instead, we get this divisive bill that locks in failure and conflict. HR 3144 will have a devastating effect on salmon and our region's salmon-fishing sector."
Wednesday's vote advances the bill to the U.S. Senate. Individuals and groups will continue to oppose this legislation and will work to convince senators that it's bad public policy that should not become law.
Appeals Court Affirms Order to Spill More Water Over Dams to Help Salmon Survive https://t.co/cWlXFcSqBT @SalmonTroutCons @SalmonFacts— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1522790706.0
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with almost a dozen conservation and fishing organizations, the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon in their efforts to improve wild salmon and steelhead survival as the fish migrate to the Pacific Ocean.
Almost a year ago, in April 2017, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ruled that federal dam managers on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have to meet higher spill requirements in the spring when baby salmon are migrating to the ocean—meaning they must allow more water to flow over the dams between April and mid-June, to help facilitate safe passage for young salmon.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) appealed that ruling. On Monday, a three-judge Appeals Court panel rejected that appeal and affirmed the increased spill levels, saying that:
"The district court properly concluded that the listed species remain in a 'precarious' state, and that they will remain in such a state without further conservation efforts beyond those included in the 2014 BiOp.
. . .
Significant evidence from decades of studies show[s] that spill volumes higher than those proposed in the 2014 BiOp will lead to higher survival rates for outmigrating [juvenile salmon]."
The new spill operations will begin Tuesday at some dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, bringing much needed protections for baby salmon migrating down river now.
"After more than 20 years of federal failure, salmon are in desperate need of help now," said Todd True, Earthjustice attorney representing conservation, fishing and clean energy advocates in the case. "The measures the court upheld will give salmon a fighting chance while the federal government catches up to the scale and urgency of what the law requires to protect these fish from extinction."
"Today's decision is just the most recent of many court orders that try to ensure federal river-management agencies in the Columbia Basin protect and restore wild salmon," said Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, the lead plaintiff in the case that prompted the NMFS appeal. "All these decisions have been clear—the status quo isn't working and the fish deserve better. The time is now for federal agencies to follow the law."
The ruling reinforces Judge Simon's order for increased 2018 spill levels, set to begin April 3 for dams on the Snake River and April 10 for dams on the Columbia River.
"We're very happy that the court recognized the obvious benefits to salmon of running the river like a river should, with increased flows over the spillway that help get young salmon past the turbines and out to sea safely," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "It's tragic that the federal agencies are still ignoring their own science in fighting spill at every step of the way."
The federal agencies point out that more water spilled over the dams means less is being used to generate electricity. Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, sees that as a false alarm, since the Northwest power grid is often faced with a surplus, especially in the spring months. She also sees the economic impact of fewer fish on communities and small businesses across the Northwest.
"Fewer fish could be a nail in the coffin for more iconic Northwest fishing brands," Hamilton said. "I know of companies trying to decide whether this is their last year in existence—brands that fishermen would recognize and recommend. We need hope, not more despair. And at the spill level the court required—and that has now been affirmed on appeal—we are going to see larger adult salmon returns."
"Today's order is a victory for endangered salmon, starving orcas, and everyone that depends on the power of the legal system to stand up to big government," added Giulia Good Stefani, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "The court of appeals upheld a carefully reasoned, fact-based trial court decision to increase the amount of water over the dams this spring."
This year marks the fourth time since 2005 that increased spill has been mandated by the district court.
With Just 76 Orcas Left, Washington Gov. Orders Protections for Beloved Killer Whales https://t.co/k0ew67Rsh0— Earth Guardians (@Earth Guardians)1521828009.0