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Western issues

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend 5 days rafting on the Salmon River in Idaho (I recommend getting married — you never know what people will decide to get you for a present!) I love rivers, whitewater, and being out in the wilderness, so it was an absolutely awesome trip. But, it was also really interesting and so relevant to everything I’ve been learning at VLS because we talked a lot with our guides about dams, salmon and healthy rivers.

First, I should tell you a bit about the Salmon River. It is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states, which means that there are amazing white sand beaches that you can camp on all along the river. Dams stop the sand that would make beaches on many rivers, but since there are no dams on the Salmon, the spring floods replenish these beautiful sand beaches all along the river. If you’ve heard about the flushing that they allow to happen on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, one of the main reasons they do it is to replenish the beaches in the Canyon that are diminished since none of the sand makes it through the dam.

The Salmon River joins the Snake River, which has a number of dams on it. In Hells Canyon, there are several major dams that provide a lot of electricity for people in the Northwest. Lower down, starting in Lewiston, ID, there are 4 dams which produce a very small fraction of Idaho’s electricity (2%). These dams allow Lewiston to be the furthest inland seaport, but they also present a major obstacle to salmon recovery.  I was relatively familiar with the 4 dams on the lower Snake River, and efforts to remove them, but I learned so much more about them on my trip.

For one thing, the little baby salmon don’t actually want to go out to sea. But, they get flushed by the spring floods, which take them tail-first from the headwaters of the Salmon all the way to the estuary at the mouth of the Columbia River. The problem with the lower Snake dams is that they slow and even stop the spring floods, which means that the baby salmon don’t get sent to the estuary. At the moment, the baby salmon are sucked up and put onto a barge and driven down to the estuary, but usually they are not physically ready to enter the estuary when they are taken via barge rather than flushed down the river.

People think that our best chance to rehabilitate the Idaho salmon populations are to remove the 4 dams on the lower Snake. And, it sounds like there might be some movement in the right direction. Apparently, Rep. James McDermott (D-WA) introduced House Resolution 2111 (http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-2111), which mostly says that they’re going to focus on the science instead of letting politics dominate decisions about the lower Snake dams. I know politics always factor in — there are jobs, industries, and real people that benefit from these dams. But, it’s possible (in fact, nearly certain) that the removal of the dams would bring much greater benefits to a lot more people. We heard that one store sold $500,000 worth of fishing tackle and gear in one weekend when they opened up the dams to allow for a flush, which meant that there were salmon to fish. The store would have sold more if they hadn’t run out of supplies.

I know this is a sensitive issue, but we’ve got to find a way in this country to make hard decisions and be honest about the costs and benefits of different actions. I know that I am biased, but it seems pretty clear to me that removing the dams on the lower Snake River is likely to bring more benefits to people, salmon and economies in the Pacific Northwest. And, after an amazing 5 days on the Salmon and then the Snake, I’m pretty motivated to work towards a positive resolution on this issue. If you are interested in this sort of thing and want to help out, you might check out HR 2111 and the websites of several organizations working on the issue, including Save our Wild Salmon, American Rivers, and Idaho Rivers United.  Here’s a recent and pertinent blog post on a recent court case regarding the salmon recovery plan in the Northwest: http://idahorivers.org/blog/?p=421 and another one about the same decision: http://www.americanrivers.org/newsroom/press-releases/2011/court-ruling-is-a-win-for-rivers-salmon-8-3-2011.html. The home page of Save our Wild Salmon features the same decision: http://www.wildsalmon.org/. There seems to be some momentum and hopefully we can get things moving in the right direction very soon — salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest are extremely diminished and if something doesn’t change soon, they are likely to disappear for good.

 

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