This Guest Opinion was originally printed on page A22 of The Oregonian on Oct. 15, 2014, accompanied by a photo of the fish viewing window at Bonneville Dam.
Last month at Bonneville Dam, an extraordinary coalition of Northwest tribes, government agencies, and river users that include farmers, businesses and utilities, gathered to celebrate a landmark event for our region’s iconic salmon.
This year’s return of about 2.3 million salmon and steelhead to the Columbia River Basin shattered the modern-day record for total annual salmon returns—an abundance we haven’t seen since fish counting began at the dam more than 75 years ago.
These numbers matter to the tribes, for whom salmon are a sacred “first food.” They matter to the commercial and sport fishing industries that benefit from a bountiful catch. If you live in the Northwest and have ever paid an electricity bill, the numbers matter to you, too.
In the late 1800s, overfishing, mining, logging, agriculture and hydropower dams decimated salmon numbers and pushed some stocks near extinction. But just as a mix of factors contributed to their decline, a combination of forces is bringing them back.
Favorable ocean conditions and hatchery efforts deserve a lot of credit. So does the willingness of traditional adversaries to work together. This collaboration—sadly, minus the state of Oregon and one Northwest tribe—is showing incredible results for salmon, including those listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Money also has helped—lots of money.
Northwest families and businesses, through charges on their electric bills, have spent more than $14 billion on improvements at the dams and changes to their operations that enable salmon to travel safely downriver, and on habitat improvements that ensure salmon can spawn and sustain future generations. For every $100 you pay toward monthly electric bills, $15 to $20 goes toward these efforts.
These measures add up to the largest wildlife restoration program in the nation. As a result, in addition to this year’s record adult returns, young salmon are 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.
It wasn’t always this way. Tribes and government agencies were mired in divisive litigation until 2008, when they reached agreements called the “Fish Accords” that added $1 billion over 10 years to ongoing restoration efforts.
This year’s record run shows that such collaboration and investment are paying off for the fish. It also proves the critics wrong: We can balance the needs of the salmon with the imperative to preserve a valuable hydropower system that, like the fish, is integral to our region’s quality of life.
Nevertheless, environmental and fishing groups along with the Nez Perce tribe, continue to litigate over federal dam operations. For those bringing the lawsuits, no amount of money from our region’s families and businesses will ever be enough. Removing the dams is their stated goal, which is doubly sad in a climate-conscious state like Oregon.
What’s more, Oregon is the sole Northwest state that clings to courtroom fighting over the collaboration that is helping boost salmon survival. Yet dams generate 60 percent of our region’s energy without adding any carbon to our skies, keeping our carbon footprint to half that of other parts of the country. It would take two large coal-fired plants or five gas-fired plants to replace this amount of clean, reliable power production. Oregon refuses to connect the dots between salmon protection and smart energy policy, advocating for spilling so much water over the dams that it may actually endanger fish.
While ocean conditions are the key driver affecting salmon survival, the fish can’t survive without our help. In a similar vein, the Northwest economy and environment cannot continue to thrive without a healthy federal hydropower system.
We must protect them all.