The Best-Laid Plans of People for Fish

By Central Lincoln’s General Manager Debra Smith, and Northwest RiverPartners Director Terry Flores

In spite of years of successful projects, disagreement continues over what works to increase fish populations.

We have much to be thankful for in the Northwest. Our natural environment is beautiful and abundant and our rivers provide food, water, irrigation and recreation. For generations we have fished, mined, logged and drawn water to grow crops.  For the last 70 years or so, we’ve enjoyed low-cost electricity powered by large dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.  Unfortunately, the cumulative impact of our actions contributed to greatly reduce salmon numbers and push some stocks towards extinction. Fortunately, the various stakeholders to our amazing river system, including federal agencies, tribes, NOAA and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), have been working together collaboratively to reverse this trend.

The effort has been expensive; more than $15 billion has been spent on dam improvements and operational changes at the dams that enable salmon to travel safely downriver, and on habitat improvements that ensure salmon can spawn and sustain future generations. Funding occurs through power costs that local utilities like Central Lincoln pay to the BPA and pass along to their customers.  For every $100 you pay toward your monthly electric bill, $15 to $20 goes towards fish restoration.

The efforts have also been successful. Combined with favorable ocean conditions and hatchery efforts, our investment has delivered record adult salmon returns and young salmon surviving their journey to the ocean at rates approaching those in free-flowing rivers without any dams, according to NOAA Fisheries, the agency responsible for salmon protection.

Unfortunately, some environmental and fishing groups, along with the Nez Perce tribe have continued to litigate over federal dam operations arguing that the federal salmon plan or Biological Opinion (BiOp) fails to do all that’s required under the Endangered Species Act. This past May, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in their favor, ordering more analysis and more evaluation of alternatives including removal of one or more dams in the Columbia and Snake River hydro system.

It will take many years to fully understand and sort the meaning behind the judge’s decision and today, the stakeholders to the BiOp are continuing to work together to assess the impact of the ruling and appropriate next steps.  We’re disappointed that collaboration and investment of this magnitude were found to be insufficient. And we’re concerned about the future impact of this decision on Northwest power costs, and our customers.

Northwest RiverPartners is an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses that promote the economic and environmental benefits of the Columbia and Snake rivers and salmon recovery policies based on sound science.

Debra is the Vice-Chair of the Public Power Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee and a member of the RiverPartners Board of Directors.

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