The idea to reintroduce salmon above Washington’s Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams has been making headlines lately. Understandably, Native American Tribes near those dams are leading the charge. They have been most affected by the salmon loss caused by the dams’ construction.
The Tribes maintain that reintroduction and passage—getting the fish past these towering dams—is newly feasible. It must be done, they argue, to “right old wrongs.”
This is an emotionally appealing argument, but it leaves out vital history and context. It hinges on the success of an untested technology to surmount one of the world’s largest concrete structures. It ignores what Congress and Northwest utility customers already have done—and continue to do—to mitigate for the dams’ impact. And it fails to account for Canada, whose agreement and funding would be critical to such a dramatic change near our shared border.
Grand Coulee Dam: The “Eighth Wonder of the World”
To start (and leaving Chief Joseph aside), it’s important to appreciate the enormous size of Grand Coulee dam and the huge role it plays in powering the Northwest economy and keeping our skies clear.
• Grand Coulee is the largest hydropower producer in the United States, providing electricity to 2.3 million homes in 11 western states.
• It provides water to irrigate 670,000 acres in the Columbia Basin.
• It’s a linchpin in the 11-dam flood control system on the Columbia River, from Canada to the Pacific Ocean.
• It’s the operational heart of the Northwest’s coordinated federal hydro system, which provides 60% of the region’s carbon-free, renewable electric energy.
Too High for Salmon Passage?
Standing at 550 feet high and 5,223 feet long, Grand Coulee required 12 million cubic yards of concrete to build. That’s enough concrete to build a sidewalk four feet wide and four inches thick and wrap it twice around the Equator.
It is this massiveness that in years past prevented the installation of fish ladders at Grand Coulee—and which continues to make salmon passage dubious, at best. The new technology touted for the job consists of a “salmon cannon,” so-called because it shoots salmon, one at a time, through a tube. The cannon has never been tested at a high-head dam like Grand Coulee. Whether it could be scaled up to shoot fish over a 550-foot dam is highly questionable and far from settled.
The Region’s Long Standing Commitment to Mitigation
At the time it was constructed, it was understood that Grand Coulee would block fish runs on the upper Columbia and decimate the productive fishery at Kettle Falls. To account for this loss, Congress authorized the construction of four fish hatcheries (Leavenworth, Winthrop, Okanogan and Entiat).
Today, these facilities release 2 million fish each year. Treaty-tribes can take up to 50% of the harvest below the dams. Congress also directed that certain areas of Lake Roosevelt be set aside for fishing, boating and hunting by two upriver Tribes—the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe of Indians. These two non-treaty tribes share in the other 50% harvest allotment along with other non-treaty tribes and sport and commercial fishermen.
Additionally, the Northwest is now recognized as home to the largest fish and wildlife restoration program anywhere in the nation:
• Nearly $16 billion has been spent to date to mitigate for the impacts of all the federal dams in the Columbia Basin, including Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee.
• Nearly $100 million a year, $1 billion in all, is being spent on state and Tribal salmon habitat restoration projects in “Fish Accord” agreements reached with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in 2008.
• The Fish Accord funding includes a $65 million dollar salmon hatchery at Chief Joseph operated by the Colville tribe.
• These massive restoration efforts are almost entirely paid for by Northwest families and businesses through their electric bills—not by taxpayers.
The Northwest may never be able to fully “right old wrongs.” But enormous and expensive efforts are underway to address legal and tribal Trust obligations and to mitigate for the dams’ impact on Tribal culture and livelihoods.
We Can’t Forget Canada
The issues of reintroduction and passage are much larger than the Northwest. Salmon, if reintroduced, won’t suddenly put the brakes on at the Canadian border.
The Regional Recommendation on the future of the Columbia River Treaty, made by the U.S. Entity (BPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to the State Department, recognizes this. It calls for a joint approach to reintroduction and shared costs with Canada. Developed with input from the Tribes and states, the Recommendation recognizes that because these are Corps and Bureau dams, fish passage would have to be authorized by Congress and paid for through federal appropriations.
Despite the need for a joint approach, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council supports moving ahead with a study of habitat availability for salmon behind Grand Coulee. This is unfortunate because it signals a unilateral approach without coordination with Canada.
The idea of putting salmon above these dams, while emotionally appealing, is complicated by myriad technical, legal, policy, political and international issues that deserve a full airing. Simply asserting “we can do it” isn’t enough.