In Sockeye Crisis, Dams Helped – But Indecision Didn’t

Last year’s massive die-off of adult sockeye salmon returning via the Columbia and Snake rivers to their spawning grounds was tragic. Mother Nature, in the form of low river flows and unusually persistent, hot temperatures created a lethal situation. Fortunately, the Columbia Basin’s spring/summer Chinook and steelhead stocks, which are hardier than sockeye and migrate earlier in the season, fared far better.

In the case of the Snake River sockeye, only 1 percent made it to Lower Granite Dam. Only 45 made it back on their own to Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley lakes to spawn, and 51 were captured and trucked by fisheries agencies to a hatchery where they were successfully spawned. Their progeny will help contribute to the restoration program that has brought the species, nearly extinct in the early 1990s, back from the brink.

Yet looking back, it’s clear that all the parties involved could have done more to help the fish in such an emergency.

From the devastating die-off we learned that in the face of such extreme events, we need to take specific measures at the dams, such as shutting off spill operations and pumping cold water into the adult fish ladders. Just as importantly, as troubles emerge, we need all the fisheries managers – federal, state and tribal — to act faster and more decisively, and for some to put salmon survival ahead of ingrained, anti-dam agendas. Further, should consensus not be possible, the federal agencies that bear the ultimate management responsibility simply need to move forward with what they believe is best for the fish.

Lessons Learned: Reservoirs and Dams

grand couleeAccording to a recent “after action” report by NOAA Fisheries, dams and reservoirs actually played a positive role during the crisis by releasing vital colder water, which kept the sockeye situation from becoming even worse. Upstream storage reservoirs, including Grand Coulee and Canada’s release of 5 million acre feet of colder water in the Columbia, and Brownlee on the Snake and Dworshak (pictured here) that feeds into the Snake, all had significant cooling effects— which helped offset higher temperatures in the rivers.

Unfortunately, cold water released from Dworshak Reservoir didn’t make it all the way to Little Goose Dam. There, returning adult sockeye were holding, reluctant to move further upstream because of hot temperatures in the fish ladder. One critical “lesson learned” is that having emergency pumps available to tap into colder water in the reservoir bottoms should be examined. While the dams alone cannot correct for extreme weather conditions, more and better use of cold reservoir water can help reduce the impact of such conditions on the fish.

Fish Managers

Another takeaway from the NOAA report concerns the role of fish managers. Some members of the state and tribal Technical Management Team (TMT), who consult on fish operations with the federal agencies (NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Army Corps and Bonneville Power), simply argued far too long over what to do, even as sockeye perished. The federal agencies also were indecisive. NOAA’s Ritchie Graves, in a recent presentation to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (Council), said: “We probably talked too long. The management community probably needs to act more quickly.”

Putting Ideology over Biology

Further, when it came to spill operations at the Snake River dams, ideology stymied biology. Spill is the practice of releasing massive amounts of water through gates at the dams to aid passage of young salmon swimming downstream to the ocean. Spill can be helpful, but it’s also controversial because too much spill can hurt young salmon, can keep adults from finding fish ladders, and can actually impede adult passage at the dams by causing fallback.

During the sockeye crisis, NOAA requested emergency operations at Little Goose to stop spilling hot river water—for a mere two days—on salmon trying to enter the fish ladder. This short-term, reasonable proposal caused a major meltdown among TMT advisors. Spill advocates in the group couldn’t put their long-held dogma aside, even as the fish they claim to care about continued to die.

In a similarly unproductive fashion, the Fish Passage Center (FPC) has not been able to resist weighing in. Although the FPC is charged with providing independent data on salmon passage and survival to fish managers and the Council, it has a long and controversial history of agitating against the dams and hydropower. In contrast to NOAA Fisheries’ even-handed evaluation, the FPC’s 59-page “analysis” of the sockeye die-off is a one-sided diatribe. Despite documented proof, the FPC refuses to acknowledge that the dams provided critical infusions of colder water during the crisis.

Let’s Be Ready

The good news is that a repeat of last year’s tragic event doesn’t appear likely in 2016, given this year’s substantial precipitation and snowpack. Yet we can’t predict when low river flows and high water temperatures will conspire again to threaten the sockeye, or even the hardier Chinook and steelhead stocks. To be ready, we must consider operational alternatives at the dams and improve the ways in which we respond during a crisis. That means less dithering, arguing and posturing—and more “doing.”

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Richelle BeckIn Sockeye Crisis, Dams Helped – But Indecision Didn’t