Agricultural interests, conservation groups, the power industry, tribes and others must work together to restore salmon runs whether or not the four Lower Snake River dams are breached, panelists said Tuesday on the first day of the Idaho Grain Producers Association’s Big Dam Meeting in McCall.
IGPA called the June 1-2 meeting, primarily in response to a February proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. His Columbia Basin Initiative calls for breaching the dams. It includes a $33.5 billion fund to mitigate impacts on agriculture and transportation, energy, communities and recreation, and federally licensed Columbia Basin dams rated above a power-generation threshold. It comes with a 35-year moratorium on litigation.
Simpson and Idaho Gov. Brad Little were scheduled to speak June 2. Little’s multi-stakeholder Salmon Working Group in December issued recommendations that did not include breaching.
IGPA Executive Director Stacey Satterlee said it’s hard to imagine a future solution as efficient as the dams and the export shipping route they create. It starts at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho.
Paul Arrington, executive director and general counsel of the Idaho Water Users Association, said in an interview that a frustration in the salmon debate is that “everybody kind of pigeonholes you — if you support the dams, you must hate the fish, and if you support the fish, you must hate the dams and the benefits they provide. That’s just not the case. All of my folks want the salmon back.” The either-or debate also “focuses on the extreme and ignores really good work that has been done.”
He said it remains unclear how Simpson’s proposal would impact the Snake River Water Rights Agreement of 2004.
In that pact, water users above the three Hells Canyon dams — which are above Lower Granite in southeast Washington, the uppermost of the four Lower Snake dams — each year provide flow-augmentation water to help downstream-migrating fish. In return, users are compensated, and a 30-year biological opinion on the Upper Snake allows water users, the state and tribes to avoid litigation.
“If you look at a lot of the litigation on the Columbia and Lower Snake, it’s about these biological opinions and the operations of the river,” Arrington said. “We’ve been able to avoid that similar litigation on the Upper Snake” due to the agreement.
Stakeholder collaboration works when interests get what they need, not necessarily what they want, and fish aren’t getting what they need, said Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes.
Wild Snake River Chinook Salmon smolt-to-adult return rates are low recently.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Fredericks said two adults must return to Lower Granite for every 100 smolts that migrate downstream. The population can grow when four adults return per 100 smolts.
Fredericks, in a report to the Salmon Working Group, pegged the return rate at Lower Granite below one for smolt migration year 2018 including adults that returned after one, two or three years in the ocean. It ranged from below one to around three from the 1990s to 2000, and from below one to four from the mid 2000s to 2010. It fluctuated from below one to around two in the 2010s.
Smolt-to-adult return rates can vary based on ocean and river conditions, predator exposure, and birth productivity. River variables include snowpack, water temperature, current speed and spawning habitat.
Fredericks said the current 10-year-average minimum abundance threshold, the number of spawners needed in historical habitat, is below the 10-year average of five years ago. That reflects lower returns the past five years.