The government has spent billions trying to save Pacific Northwest wild salmon, yet this year the iconic fish hurtles even closer toward extinction. No one seems willing to take the one step that is guaranteed to work: breach the bloody dams.
The government has spent billions trying to save Pacific Northwest wild salmon, yet the iconic fish hurtles even closer toward extinction. No one seems willing to take the one step that is guaranteed to work: breach the bloody dams.
By G. Bruce Knecht
Photographs by John Clark
Jaime Pinkham does not use a reel and rod to pursue the salmon that are battling their way up Idaho’s Rapid River. He uses a “dip net,” a 16-foot-long pole with an oval-shaped hoop at the end. Primitive but effective, the same method has been used for thousands of years, though the equipment has evolved. The yard-long hoop that holds the net, once made of wood, is metal. The net is also made of metal rather than hemp, and the pole is formed with two lengths of wood joined together with a metal sleeve and secured with the help of a battery-powered screwdriver. “Not the way the ancestors did it,” Pinkham jokes as he switches on the screwdriver.
Stepping sideways down the bank of the river, Pinkham finds a place to plant his feet in the icy water. He then extends the pole out over the center of the river, which is about 20 feet wide, and lets the hoop fall to the bottom. What happens next is crucial: He must sweep the pole downstream with the net running lightly over the large, mostly rounded rocks at the bottom. The pole is heavy and the torrent of water tumbling down the river is fierce, but the movement must be swift to capture a fish before it has time to escape.
Pinkham is a 52-year-old member of the Nez Perce, a tribe whose livelihood has always been linked to salmon. His dark hair is crew-cut short near the front of his head, but long in the back, gathered up into a braided ponytail that extends to the small of his back. He learned to fish on nearby rivers when he was a child. Although he now lives in Portland, Oregon, he returns to the river, which is in west central Idaho, not far from Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, every spring — in part because of the connection it provides to his family and ancestors, but also for the fish. On this trip, he set out from his parents’ home in Lewiston, Idaho a bit before 3 a.m. with his wife and father. He picked me up from a nearby hotel a few minutes later.
Although the water is not deep, the fish are invisible, detectable only when the hoop makes contact with something softer than a rock or when it is weighed down with a fish. It is shortly after 6 a.m. when Pinkham begins the age-old battle, and the air is still cold. As I pace the riverbank to keep warm, I can’t imagine how any creature could make any headway against the downhill flood. Then again, everything about salmon is tough to grasp. How can juvenile salmon swim hundreds of miles downstream, passing through rapids and dams, to reach the Pacific? How do they morph from freshwater creatures into saltwater ones and then travel thousands of miles through the ocean before they know it is time to return to the river from which they emerged? And how does each salmon surmount raging rapids and towering dams to find the place where its life began to initiate another cycle of life just before its own expires?
On his second dip, Pinkham scoops up an eight-pound Chinook salmon. “That was quick!” his father shouts.
Pinkham lets his prey fall to the ground before he strikes its blue-green head with a wooden club. He hits it twice, and it stops moving. Once he carves out the gills, he drains the blood and then ties the fish to an exposed tree root near the river so it lies in cold water while he hunts for more. Fifteen minutes later, he lands another one. The mood is festive, with tribal members either too young or too old to fish socializing on the shore. But Pinkham’s luck with the Chinook, also known as king salmon, would soon run out. He doesn’t catch a third fish until midafternoon — and there would be no more. “I’m supposed to bring home fish for a lot of people,” he says, his disappointment plain. “This is not enough.”
For most of history, salmon thrived in what seemed like endless abundance in the Pacific Northwest’s three great river systems — the Columbia, Sacramento and the Klamath — that extend thousands of miles through California, Washington, and Oregon, and beyond that, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, and Canada. The Rapid River leads to the Upper Salmon River, then the Salmon, and then the Snake before merging into the Columbia, which was once the world’s most productive salmon spawning ground.
For the region’s Indian tribes, the fish provided nutrition as well as prosperity. Commercial fishermen have shared in the bounty. Thousands of oceangoing fishing boats have harvested salmon along most of the West Coast. But no longer. The populations of wild salmon species that return to the Columbia have virtually disappeared; most are on the endangered species list. Last summer salmon populations were so small that commercial fishing was banned almost everywhere off the West Coast.
How can it be that one of America’s greatest fisheries has all but vanished, despite a decades-long, much-publicized fight — and an enormous outlay of taxpayer dollars? To find out what went wrong, last summer I traveled through Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and northern California. I visited the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which funnel vast amounts of water to the south, transforming California’s Central Valley from an arid wasteland into the nation’s most productive farmland. I also trekked to the Klamath River, which straddles the Oregon-California border and was once home to the West Coast’s third largest salmon run. I quickly learned that there are many contributing factors to the salmon’s perilous state, but that the predominant problem is the dams that keep salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.
The earliest dams, built more than a century ago, were small and privately financed. They were followed by ever-larger constructions, particularly under the FDR administration, which seized on hydroelectric dams as a way to lift the nation out of depression with what appeared to be a virtuous cycle: Besides providing jobs and producing inexpensive electricity, the dams would eliminate flooding and allow for the creation of farmland.
There are now more than 220 dams blocking the Columbia and its tributaries, making it the nation’s most dammed — or, to put it another way, “hydroelectrically developed” — watershed. The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency formed in 1937 that operate manages the power produced by the largest of the dams, sells more than $2 billion of power a year. Like salmon, the dams that harnessed the power of the Pacific Northwest’s great rivers to provide vast supplies of low-cost electricity are regional icons, but they have created gauntlets of concrete and transformed raging rivers into what looks more like chains of reservoirs, slow-moving bodies of water that are inhospitable to salmon.
Bonneville’s most controversial dams are four that were added in the lower section of the 1,000-mile-long Snake River in the 1960s and 1970s. They block a 140-mile section of the Columbia River’s largest tributary, creating an inland waterway that enables ships and barges to travel all the way from Astoria, Oregon to Lewiston, Idaho. But they also made it difficult for salmon to reach hundreds of miles of pristine habitat, including the Rapid River.
There are ways to reduce the dams’ impact on salmon — building hatcheries and carrying juvenile fish to locations downstream of the dams by trucks and barges, for instance. The hatcheries work something like a high-volume blood transfusion machine, turning out millions of juvenile fish, many of which are gathered up by strainers and released into the river below the dams. But hatchery fish are less robust and more susceptible to disease than wild ones, making them much less likely to survive and reproduce.
The federal and state governments have spent more money to save the salmon — estimates range from $1.5 billion to as much as $8 billion over the past 30 years, depending on how many tangential programs get lumped into the total — than they have to preserve any other species. Whatever the actual amount, it’s clear that the feds, and by extension taxpayers, are getting a lousy return on their investments. The populations of wild salmon that return to the river are about three percent of what they were before the dams, which is well below sustainable levels. Snake River Coho salmon were declared extinct in 1988. In 2006 just three Snake River sockeye, all of them hatchery fish, returned to their spawning ground in Idaho, making them virtually extinct. While the number increased to more than 600 last year, today, two thirds of the Columbia River System’s salmon stocks are either threatened or endangered.
A couple of days before my visit to the Rapid River, I had been in Astoria, which is 600 miles downstream, where I met Steve Fick, who started fishing for salmon in 1975 when he was a senior at Astoria’s high school. By then, Astoria’s economy had declined from the days when Columbia River fishermen reeled in more than 25 million pounds of salmon every year, but there were still plenty of fish. The school’s athletic teams were known as “The Fighting Fishermen,” and everyone in Fick’s neighborhood had something to do with fishing, including his dad, who worked as an electrician in a cannery. During summers when he was going to the University of Oregon, Fick worked at the same cannery and also as a deck hand on a small salmon-seeking fishing boat, earning more than $4,000 every summer, more than enough to put himself through school. When he graduated, he bought his own boat and started fishing for salmon full time, but salmon populations have declined steeply since then. There were eleven processing plants in and around Astoria when Fick was in school. Since then, almost all of them have shut down.
Fick has stuck it out. With his fishing earnings, he built his own river-front processing plant, which is today one of only two that handle salmon. Sitting in his office on the plant’s second floor, he has a panoramic view of the Columbia River, which is at that point more than three and a half miles wide. Fick is just 52 years old, but when he talks about how he got started in the fish business during a late afternoon conversation in his office, he sounds like he is describing a long-lost age. “When I was a kid, there were 50 kids that worked in that one cannery and we made good money. A lot of kids had choices because of salmon — that’s something that doesn’t get said enough.” Fick has managed to stay in business because he has found other species to replace salmon and downsized his workforce, but he has already told his son Jonathan, who is 14, that the fishing economy does not have many opportunities anymore. “This is a throw-away fish-processing plant,” he told me. “I bought the real estate assuming I would not be selling it as a fish plant. It’ll probably end up being condos.”
Fick still fishes for salmon when it is allowed, but he could count the days of last year’s salmon season with his fingers: two days in May, seven in August, and, he hoped, another three or four by fall. “You can’t make a living on that,” he says. “There is an entire community of people who are coming up to me saying, ‘Can I have $500 until we get to the next season?’” Fick would like the share of fish that can be caught by commercial fishermen to be larger relative to what goes to sports fishermen and the Indian tribes, but now that the pie has become so small, he is much more interested in understanding what’s gone wrong and finding ways to expand the pie itself.
Jim Martin speaks so fervently about salmon that he is widely known as Preacher Jim. He has been studying the Pacific Northwest’s salmon for four decades, first as a biologist with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, and more recently as conservation director for Pure Fishing, the world’s largest producer of fishing tackle. “We’ve cut off access to the headwaters, and we’ve changed the rate of water that flows through the river and also the temperature,” he told me over breakfast near his home outside of Portland. “We do these things because we want to use the water for power or to irrigate or to provide water to cities. But it all comes at the expense of salmon. It’s like a giant rubber band: When you start stretching it, it expands easily because salmon also have a lot resiliency. But at some point, the resistance goes up and you reach the breaking point. You ask yourself, ‘Can I stretch the rubber band just one more millimeter, then another, maybe just one more? Then bam! The rubber band breaks and the population collapses. You shut down hundreds of miles of fisheries and inflict all sorts of pain on fish-dependent communities. And then the politicians scramble around and say, ‘Gee, I didn’t mean to break the rubber band.’”
Weighing the tradeoffs between endangered species and low-cost electricity that comes from a renewable, carbon-free source is difficult, but Martin says that in the case of the lower Snake River dams, which produce a relatively small amount of Bonneville’s power, it’s clear: “In return for those dams, we have lost the last great wild salmon of the Pacific Northwest. The wilderness that lies above the dams — much of it national parks and reserves — is the finest salmon habitat in the world. The salmon can theoretically get up there, but the four dams are strangling them. If we want to save salmon, those four dams have to go. They provide almost no benefits compared to the great damage they do.”
The Endangered Species Act is supposed to keep this from happening. Under the law, federal agencies are required to develop a plan, called a biological opinion, for ensuring that the dams do not jeopardize the survival and recovery of listed populations. But a federal judge based in Portland, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, has rejected three of four recent plans as illegal because they have done little to help salmon and do not live up to the government’s responsibilities under the act.
A plan submitted by the government in 2004 was particularly offensive to the judge because it was based on the outlandish assumption that the Snake River dams were a natural — and therefore immutable — part of the landscape. Given its assumption, the government claimed it had no obligation to mitigate the damage caused by the dams or to consider the possibility of their removal. Environmentalists have long believed that the Bush administration was merely going through the motions to satisfy the law rather than actually trying to save the salmon, and the judge gave voice to that view when he rejected the government’s plan: “The government’s inaction appears to some parties to be a strategy intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the status quo.”
After the government appealed his decision, it was vigorously upheld by San Francisco’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. “At its core,” wrote Judge Sydney R. Thomas, the member of the three-judge panel who wrote the appellate opinion, the government’s plan “amounted to little more than an analytical slight of hand.”
Now another plan is before Judge Redden. Like the others, it does not call for the elimination of any dams or major changes in their operation. It has been challenged by a coalition of commercial and sports fishermen and environmentalists, as well as taxpayer advocates who believe the removal of the dams would benefit the region’s residents economically. “The Snake River salmon are truly endangered,” Redden told the High Country News last year. “We can’t continue to go in circles.”
After the judge heard oral arguments on March 6, the Justice Department requested a delay to have more time to look at the plan. In the meantime, Judge Redden wrote a letter to all involved parties, including the Obama administration, urging a new outlook.
“Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act,” Judge Redden wrote. “Only recently have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We simply cannot afford to waste another decade.” He also asked the government to develop a new plan that would look at “specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns, as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail.”
Sitting in a windowless, dimly lit room deep inside the Bonneville Dam, Carole Hayes is counting salmon. The fish have just ascended a fish ladder, a series of concrete steps, each a foot higher than the last, over which water flows. As a fish approaches a step, a surge of twisting energy enables them to leap out of the water and up to the next level. Once they reach the top, they are forced to swim through one of two narrow channels that are illuminated by lights. One side of the channel is made of glass. On the other side of the glass is the counting room where someone tallies every passing fish, 16 hours a day. Hayes is sitting behind a large desk, which holds a specially designed keyboard that has two keys for every species of salmon, one for wild fish and another for those that are hatchery-born, the difference readily apparent because a small fin on the backs of hatchery fish are snipped off before they are released.
On the day of my visit, most of the fish are shad, a non-indigenous species that has thrived as salmon stocks have shrunk, but salmon make regular appearances. Many of them have scrapes across their sides, evidence of the sea lions that can gather near the start of the fish ladders for what some people call “the buffet line.” A screen to the left of the keyboard indicates that 98 Chinook salmon had passed during the previous hour, 14 of which were wild.
Juvenile salmon can pass dams in two main ways — they can go over the spillway at the top, or through the chambers near the bottom, where water turns the blades of the turbines that transfer the power of the river to generators. Most of the young fish can survive the spillway, but since the water going over it produces no electricity, dam operators are reluctant to let water pass that way. The mortality rate is greater for the fish that go through the turbine chambers. (Bonneville, for its part, disputes this, claiming that their research shows that as much as 98 percent of the salmon survive passing directly through the turbines, versus 92 percent over the spillway.) Some salmon are killed or injured by the pressure in the chambers; others become so disoriented they are readily picked off by downstream predators. The dams also make the journey to the Pacific much longer, increasing threats from diseases and predators: Before any of the dams were built, it took fish less than two weeks to get from Idaho to Astoria, a 465-mile journey. The same trip today takes a month and a half — for those that make it.
Greg Delwiche, Bonneville Power Administration’s vice president for Environment, Fish and Wildlife, is the man responsible for finding ways to limit dams’ impact on salmon. He was leading my tour of the dam, an enormous river-straddling mass of concrete that looks like an aging industrial complex. Delwiche’s staff and the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates some of Bonneville’s dams, have devised various ways to increase salmon survival rates, including fences that have been erected near the base of the fish ladders to ward off sea lions. They are particularly proud of the “corner collector.” It came about after biologists noticed that ocean-bound salmon tended to follow a boom line that had been set up to deflect ice and timber from the dam. They designed a channel intended to direct fish away from the concrete walls of the dam so they are less likely to follow the flow of water that leads to the deadly turbine chambers. The hope is that fish will enter a 2,284-foot-long concrete channel that bypasses both the spillway and the turbines. The corner collector cost $50 million to build, part of $350 million that has been spent at Bonneville Dam to reduce fish mortality.
After visiting the fish-counting room, Delwiche asked me to look at a chart showing the number of adult salmon that swam upstream past the dam from 1938 to 2005. To an uninformed visitor, it would suggest that the dam had not had any negative impact, indicating that slightly fewer than 500,000 adult salmon passed the dam in 1938 and that more than one million did so in 2005. But having spent time with Preacher Jim and other marine scientists, I understood that the chart was totally misleading. Since the dam was completed in 1937, the comparison only reflects the post-dam reality, not the number of fish that passed before it was built. In addition, in 1938 fishermen were harvesting enormous numbers of salmon in the ocean and in the river before they reached the dam; by 2005 relatively few fish were caught before the dam. And any increase from 1938 is mostly the result of the establishment of hatcheries. The chart did not indicate that the vast majority of the salmon that now pass the dam are hatchery fish.
After we left the dam, we drove further east along the river, and Delwiche, who has degrees in civil and environmental engineering, sought to portray himself as an outdoorsman, showing me where he likes to go windsurfing. He also talked about why he believes the lower Snake River dams must stay. I had not seen a single barge on the river, but he talked about the value of having an inland waterway that extends all the way to Lewistown, as well as the electricity produced by the dams. “Those dams produce clean energy,” he said. “If we removed them, they would have to be replaced by six to nine natural gas-fired plants.” We eventually arrived at Hood River, the riverside town that has become a Mecca for windsurfers and mountain bikers, to have lunch. Delwiche told me how wind-generated power, which accounts for just three percent of the region’s electric power production, is not a viable alternative to the dams, as I watched windsurfers rocketing across the river. Sitting down at Three Rivers Grill, Delwiche and I both ordered salmon after we were assured that it was caught in the wild. A bit later, I asked what kind of salmon it was. The waitress announced that it was “Atlantic salmon.”
“Ew!” Delwiche said, obviously aware that this meant a fish that was the product of a farm, and therefore not one he wanted to eat.
Wild Atlantic salmon are now so scarce that they are no longer caught by commercial fishermen, but the farmed version has become ubiquitous. Over the last quarter century, salmon farmed off both coasts of Canada, Norway, Chile, and elsewhere have gone from being a miniscule part of the salmon market to accounting for more volume than wild fish. And the farms have done much to mask what has happened to salmon that live in the wild. But the farmed version, having lived in the marine equivalent of a crowded cattle feedlot, do not taste nearly as good and do not offer the human health benefits that wild fish do. Worse still, the conditions in which they live are so filthy that farmed fish have spread diseases and parasites to their wild brethren, resulting in other major threats to the fish.
Canceling our orders, we had club sandwiches instead.
Since the inland waterway to Lewistown, Idaho is part of the argument for not breaching the dams, a few days after I spent time with Delwiche I visited one of the waterway’s supposed beneficiaries, a fourth generation farmer in eastern Washington named Bryan Jones. The bushels of wheat that are his major crop are taken by truck to a grain elevator next to the river and loaded onto a barge that carries it past the dams to Portland, where it is transshipped to ocean-going vessels that take it to buyers in Asia, where it’s less likely to become bread than noodles.
Jones’ great-grandfather began farming back in 1868 with a 160-acre homestead. From chairs he arranges in front of his house during warm-weather months, Jones can see most of the 640 rolling acres he now works. A hillside in the distance is marked by broad strips of varying colors. The light green section near the top is spring wheat. Below it is winter wheat, which is darker. The brown area near the bottom is stubble from the previous year’s crop. The wheat looks like overgrown grass, and it is beautiful, particularly when the wind sends it into graceful swirling patterns. Closer to the house is a fenced area with 25 Hereford Angus cows, and closer still lies a plot where Jones is attempting, without much success, to grow organic alfalfa. A vegetable garden, a couple dozen chickens and another wheat field lie on the other side of the house.
At 53, Jones is tall and lean. His graying beard makes him look more like an academic than a farmer. He says the economics of his small farm are tough in spite of soaring wheat prices. He had agreed to sell most of the 12,000 bushels he hopes to produce this year, at 60 pounds of wheat kernels each, for about $7 per bushel — that’s much more than the $4.40 he received the previous year, but the cost of fertilizer has doubled and diesel fuel has also soared.
Eager to determine whether the waterway actually provides a super-low-cost means for reaching the market, I asked Jones to make a couple of phone calls. First, I asked him to get a current quote from Columbia Grain, which operates a grain elevator in Central Ferry, which is where he had agreed to send his crop. Sitting in a swivel chair in his linoleum-covered kitchen, Jones called the company and was told that they would now pay $8.24 per bushel. Then he called Ritzville Warehouse Company of Ritzville, Washington, which does not use the waterway created by the Snake River dams because it trucks grain to an elevator downstream. It offered $8.22 per bushel.
“Two cents is nothing—it amounts to $240″ based on 12,000 bushels of wheat, he declared after he put down the phone. Jones had always suspected that the waterway’s benefits were overstated, particularly after he saw Sam Mace, an activist with an environmental group called Save Our Wild Salmon, speak a couple of years earlier, but now he was convinced. “I wouldn’t be in favor of anything that might hurt me or my neighbors, but I think the dams should go,” he said. Noting that the economic development that was supposed to transform Lewiston has also turned out to be illusory and that the dams had created a flood risk for the city, he added: “If the dams were gone, we could recover the great farmland that was next to the river before they were submerged by the dams, and we’d have a river that could be used for recreation.”
After visiting Jones, I flew to San Francisco to meet some commercial fishmermen there. Larry Collins was easy to find. Since the 2008 salmon season was called off, his 46-foot boat Autumn Gale rarely leaves its berth at Fisherman’s Wharf. After he welcomed me aboard, he waved his hand around the wheelhouse where a number of maintenance projects were obviously underway. “This is what 25 years gets you,” he said. He would not say how much he paid for the boat, but says similar vessels cost $300,000 and that his acquisition required earnings he had accumulated over a quarter century of fishing, a second mortgage on his house, as well as an additional loan. He calls it his “dream boat” and says it has everything he needs. Lengthy outriggers, poles used to spread out lines with 60 hooks, stand on either side of the wheelhouse. A large aluminum tank can accommodate 5,000 pounds of fish. There is just one problem: He bought the boat in 2006, and after a mediocre salmon season in 2007, the 2008 season was cancelled. Soon the 2009 season in California will be cancelled as well.
Collins, a large man who is called “Duck” by his friends, loves fishing. “Every day is different,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t have a single bite all day, and then, all of the sudden, it’s a gold rush. You get 150 twenty-pounders in a day. Those are the days we live for.” Born in the Bronx, he was a sports fisherman before he made it his profession, and he retains an almost romantic attachment to his work, which he clearly regards as more than just a means to make money. “The American people own the fish — we just go out and give you access to the resource,” he says. “But we are losing that — we are going to lose every one of these fleets.” When he started fishing, there were 4,700 commercial salmon fishing vessels based in California; now the number of active vessels has been reduced to about 400. Collins, who is president of San Francisco’s association of fishermen, says the fundamental problem is that agricultural interests and dam operators have so much more political power than fishermen.
“The industries we are fighting are so rich and powerful that they can use up all of the water — water that salmon need to survive,” he says over lunch at Scoma’s, a well-known seafood restaurant just down the wharf from his boat. “That’s the reason why you don’t see wild salmon on the menu here today.”
Eight years ago, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, the Interior Department official responsible for allocating water from the Klamath River, checked her voice mail to discover an unusual message: “I understand you are the person handling this Klamath situation,” the voice said, according to a report in the Washington Post. “Please call me at — hmm, I guess I don’t know my own number. I’m over at the White House.” The caller said he was Vice President Dick Cheney, who has long understood the political importance of allocating water.
Cheney was concerned by the decision to shut off the supply of irrigation water to farmers in Oregon, a battleground state in the previous election. After a drought, the supply of irrigation water from the river had been cut off because federal scientists had determined that continued diversions would be so harmful to salmon that it would violate the Endangered Species Act. In response, the farmers, most of them Republicans, were staging protests. After determining that the message was real, Wooldridge was told that the vice president was committed to finding a way to restore the flow of irrigation water. She was instructed to provide a weekly briefing on the matter to the vice president’s staff until it was resolved, and President Bush and Karl Rove traveled to Oregon to assure farmers that the White House was on the case. In March 2002, Cheney got what he wanted. The valves were opened and farmers received their usual allocation of water. Over the subsequent months, an estimated 77,000 salmon washed up on the shore of the overheated, lake-like river. Federal scientists determined that the decision to divert the water was at least partly responsible for the massive fish kill.
In 2008 fewer than 96,000 salmon returned to the Klamath. Before the dams, more than 800,000 salmon returned every year, enough to sustain four Native American tribes as well as a productive commercial fishery. Again, the main culprit was the dams, particularly the Iron Gate Dam, the one closest to the Pacific. It is 173 feet tall and not equipped with fish ladders. Iron Gate and five other dams are owned or operated by Portland-based PacifiCorp, which is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, which in turn is controlled by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Company.
Yet, against all odds, the Klamath is likely to be the place where salmon are given the chance to reclaim some of their natural territory. In the aftermath of the battle over irrigation water, farmers, tribal leaders, fishermen, and environmentalists all came to agree that the four dams closest to the Pacific should be breached. As with the Columbia and Sacramento Rivers, the communities most affected by the dams and the declining salmon populations had historically fought one another for larger shares of the water and the dwindling supply of fish, squabbling that made it much easier for dam operators to maintain the status quo. More recently, they decided to band together to advocate removing the dams. Although farmers benefited from the dams, they worried that the supply of water might be cut off again and that there might not be another White House rescue, so they and the tribes reached an unprecedented understanding: The farmers would join the push to breach some of the dams if they were guaranteed a supply of water.
Now that the interested parties have come to terms, officials from the federal government as well as California and Oregon have negotiated an agreement with PacifiCorp that is likely to result in the removal of the four dams. It’s easy to see why the company is bailing; the dams produce an insignificant amount of electricity, enough to power just 70,000 homes, and PacifiCorp probably would have to pay several hundred million dollars to install fish ladders, among other things, in order to renew its license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that enables the company to utilize the river.
Breaching the dams will be expensive, and no one knows for sure how the river will flow when the dams are removed, releasing the vast amount of dirt and sediment that has built up above them. But once the river moves more freely, the diseases that afflict juvenile salmon in the warm, slow-moving sections of the river are sure to decline. Over time, the salmon population should return to levels closer to what they were before the dam, allowing Native Americans to once again consume salmon as a regular part of their diet. “The Klamath is the great opportunity,” says Craig Tucker, a biologist who works for the Karuk tribe. “Of all of the rivers in the lower 48 states, it is the one river where full watershed restoration is politically feasible.”
The Karuks will be a prime beneficiary. The average per person salmon consumption has gone from more than a pound a day to less than five pounds a year, a change that has been accompanied by epidemic levels of heart disease and diabetes. The tribe’s allowable catch has been so low that the annual celebration that had always heralded the arrival of the first salmon is not held anymore.
But the good news for the Klamath is not likely to be repeated elsewhere anytime soon. The coalition that was advocating breaching the Snake River dams has fallen apart. Until recently, the dam-removal advocates have included biologists, environmentalists, commercial and sport fishermen, and the five Native American tribes that live in the area. But last year, four of the five tribes abruptly changed course. They agreed to end their support for legal efforts aimed at removing the dams in exchange for about $900 million over the next 10 years to improve fish habitats and fisheries. Bonneville will contribute $850 million for the settlement, and the rest will come from the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation (i.e., taxpayers). Environmentalists, who believe only 25 percent of the money will go to help salmon, say the deal is a sellout.
Charles Hudson, an official of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, disputes that. “When the Indians were at their lowest point, being forced to move to reservations and negotiate treaties with guns to their heads, the one thing they held out for was their claim for salmon,” Hudson says. In return for giving up most of their land, tribes were given the right to fish “in the usual and accustomed places.” Federal courts have interpreted that to mean that the tribes have the right to half of the fish that are taken from the rivers. The great problem with this is the dams: The tribes do not get half the salmon that the rivers historically produced; they get a half share from the much smaller population of salmon that exist now that the dams are in place.
“We were allies with the environmentalists for a long time,” Hudson says, “but this deal allows us to do good things — real things — for the fish, and to show that we know how to manage a precious natural resource.” He argues that breaching is unlikely to happen anyway during the 10-year life of the agreement, and that the tribes cannot afford to let their interests be compromised by environmental idealism. “We have a culture that’s dying on the vine in part because of the lack of fish. We can’t wait for the litigation.’’
Besides, breaching the Snake River dams would take an act of Congress, and everyone understands that finding the political will for that would have been difficult even before the four tribes changed course. In the summer of 2003, President Bush traveled to the Ice Harbor Dam, one of the four lower Snake River dams, with his Secretary of Energy to argue that salmon can be saved without eliminating any dams and to make a very clear statement as to his administration’s policy. “We don’t need to be breaching any dams that are producing electricity — and we won’t,” he declared. “We want the salmon to live. We want the quality of life in this part of the world to be strong as well.” Despite Judge Redden’s urging, it is not clear that things will be any different with the new administration, as President Obama has yet to take a position on the dams.
The one tribe that did not make a deal with the Bonneville is Jaime Pinkham’s, the Nez Perce. It is also, not coincidentally, the only tribe whose reservation is located upstream of all the Snake River dams, so it is more affected by the dams than are the other tribes. Some members, including Pinkham, believe it should make its own deal with Bonneville, but that it should have better terms than those of the other tribes. “It would get us out of the courtroom and provide funding with certainty,” Pinkham told me during a break from his day of fishing on the Rapid River.
Jaime’s uncle Allen Pinkham, a former leader of the tribe, watching from a foldable chair, wholeheartedly disagrees. Now 70, Alan Pinkham caught his first salmon from the Rapid River almost six decades ago, long before the erection of the lower Snake dams. “The dams decimated the stocks of salmon,” he says. “We were told, ‘Don’t worry, Indian. We have put in fish ladders; the salmon will be fine.’ Well, that obviously didn’t work.”
Allen Pinkham came to the conclusion that the Snake River dams should be removed in the early 1980s. Because he still believes that is the only way to avoid further extinctions, he adamantly opposes the idea of making a deal with Bonneville, regardless of how much money is offered. “There used to be sockeye salmon here — now they are gone,” he says. “When we lose a species, the whole interconnected circle of life begins to break down. I think we should equate these fish to our bodies. When we lose a species, we lose a finger or hand. That’s exactly what we are doing to ourselves.”
An earlier version of this story was published prematurely, before the research and editing process was complete. Men’s Journal regrets the error.