Friday, May 27, 2011

Different Situations: Grand Coulee Fish Kill and Columbia/Snake River Salmon Spill

Grand Coulee Dam

The recent fish kill below Grand Coulee dam has garnered some media attention.  We wanted to take a moment to clear up some misconceptions about how this relates to spill for salmon:

A large release of water from Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia River in northern Washington has killed several thousand farmed steelhead trout being raised in net pens in the river.  This situation is very different from that of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River below Grand Coulee, and in the Snake River, where fishing, business and conservation groups are seeking additional beneficial spill to help salmon.  The differences make all the difference for fish, people and businesses.  Here are a few:

1.  There is no passage for migrating salmon at Grand Coulee or the dam below it, Chief Joseph.  The dead fish are farmed trout held in net pens near the water surface below the dam, so they are unable to move away from excess dissolved gas or swim deeper to avoid it.  Migrating salmon and steelhead that are passing other dams are free-swimming, so both river current and their own survival instinct moves them away from areas of high dissolved gas below dams.

2.  The Grand Coulee water releases are not “spill,” despite some stories to the contrary.  At Grand Coulee, due to low reservoir levels, water is being released through regulating gates near the bottom of the dam.  At Columbia and Snake dams being traversed by salmon, water is being spilled over the top via dam spillways.  The Coulee releases through regulating gates that generate higher dissolved gas levels than spill at other dams.  This makes a big difference for fish.

3.  Dissolved gas levels from the releases at Grand Coulee have been in the range of 130-135% saturation, higher than spill over spillways would normally cause, and exceeding the additional safe spill sought by fishing and conservation groups for salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean. 

4.  At Grand Coulee, one farmed fish business is being harmed due to high dissolved gas levels caused by choices dam managers are making in response to high water.  Downstream, in lower reaches of the Columbia and the Snake River, hundreds of salmon-based businesses are being helped by the high spring flows we are experiencing, because salmon migrating to the ocean are getting there faster.  This does not mean that very high dissolved gas levels caused by dams are good for salmon, but it does mean that, when we plan and carefully manage high water and spill, high flows are mostly good for salmon, and thus for Northwest salmon businesses.

One big thing is the same at Grand Coulee and the dams downstream:  high water.  Many other things are different, of which we’ve listed just a few.  We hope reporters and readers pay close attention to the differences, because it is the differences that matter most to affected people, fish and businesses.

Thank you Seattle! - A Two Rivers Review

We had a fantastic turnout for our “Tale of Two Rivers” event at the REI store in Seattle on Tuesday. The room was packed – standing room-only with well over a hundred attendees.

A Tale of Two Rivers, Seattle © Jeff Paine, American Whitewater

The reception before the event featuring delicious smoked chinook salmon from Seattle’s own Jensen’s Smokehouse never hurts attendance either.

We split the program into two parts. We started with a celebration of the impending removal of the two dams on the Elwha River on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and and a review of how a “radical” idea like removing dams became one that is now “radically” popular. One is hard-pressed to find an opponent of Elwha Dam removal. Everyone is on board: the federal government, local communities, fishing and tourism-based businesses. And of course the Lower K’lallam Tribe living on the banks of Elwha River (opposed these dams from day 1 – one hundred years ago). Michael Garrity (American Rivers), Shawn Cantrell (Seattle Audubon), and Tom O’Keefe (American Whitewater) did a great job of setting the stage, describing the long campaign’s legal and political twists and turns, and detailing what exactly removal will entail.

Tom O'Keefe of American Whitewater ©Jeff Paine, AW

One of the key reasons for the success and popularity today of Elwha River restoration through dam removal is that in the end, all the affected stakeholders whose lives and businesses have been connected to these two dams got their needs met as part of the “solutions package.” For example, the dams’ energy consumers had their energy replaced, and the City of Port Angeles secured a clean and affordable water supply for their citizens and businesses. It is the same kind of stakeholder outcomes that we’ll need in the Snake River basin in order to responsibly restore a free-flowing lower stretch of river.

Michael Garrity speaking w/ Shawn, Jb, and Tom ©Jeff Paine, AW

We then switched gears, and hosted the Seattle premiere of The Greatest Migration from EP Films – a 22-minute film highlighting the one-of-a-kind salmon and the one-of-a-kind habitat of the Snake River Basin. It is an understatement to suggest that the film was well-received. People loved it and wanted copies to show their friends and family – and even strangers in some cases.

We finished up with lots of Q and A, more of Jensen’s Smoked kings. People went home content – their bellies full, proud of what our state has accomplished on the Elwha, and optimistic about our opportunities for a similar outcome on the Snake River in eastern Washington.

A huge THANK YOU to all participating organizations and attendees!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BPA puts the brakes on wind and blames salmon

SOS proposes a “wind-win” solution to BPA’s problems
From the desk of Rhett Lawrence, Policy Analyst for Save our Wild Salmon

Wind turbines near Tri-Cities, Washington

As part of its ongoing attempts to reduce spill levels in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has now implemented its policy to shut off wind energy production in the region due to high flow levels in the rivers.

Even though BPA has had years to prepare for this situation, the agency is now claiming that legal constraints for salmon and overgeneration of wind and hydropower are forcing it to turn off wind power production. 

That policy was implemented for the first time in the early morning hours of May 18 and has been used every day since then for a least a few hours.  

Here’s what Congressman Blumenauer (D-OR) had to say in a May 23 news conference with SOS and wind industry advocates: 

“The actions that the Bonneville Power Administration has undertaken are in direct conflict with the stated renewable goals of the Department of Energy, the Obama Administration, many key energy policy leaders nationally and regionally, and at variance with what we’ve attempted to do in the Pacific Northwest to grow [the wind] industry.” 

Further, Congressman Blumenauer noted, “this action is unnecessarily dividing Northwest utility consumers into winners and losers.”

SOS has also repeatedly stated that BPA’s policy undermines renewable energy generation and is harmful to salmon. A recent op-ed in the Seattle Times from SOS Executive Director, Pat Ford, made a clear case for how wild salmon and wind power can and should be working together. Indeed, the simple reality is that spilling more water over the dams would both be helpful to out-migrating young salmon and would create more room on the energy grid for wind power. 

Here are Pat Ford’s comments during the May 23 news conference:

“The current situation is fundamentally a problem of too much hydro coupled with the state of energy markets – not a wind power problem…. A solution for salmon can help solve the problem.  That solution is more safe spill, water going over the tops of dams rather than through turbines.  Spill is the safest way to get young salmon heading to the ocean past big dams. And by reducing hydro generation some it will ease the overgeneration problem.” 

Much of this situation could have been prevented. 

BPA has had years to prepare for these types of overgeneration scenarios by improving the power grid to accommodate the booming production of wind and other renewable energy and finding ways to store that power.  Instead, the agency has dragged its feet in preference for higher revenues via hydro power.  The idea that salmon are somehow to blame for their failure to plan is disingenuous.  

BPA may not be the only agency or entity that will make an adequate grid a reality, but it's in the best position to push for these new solutions. Sadly, instead of science, politics and money are driving BPA’s decision and standing in the way of what is good for both salmon and the wind industry. Litigation is now sure to follow from wind producers who are already losing millions of dollars. 

We believe it’s time for BPA to stop circumventing its responsibilities to the salmon and renewable energy communities. BPA should act like the federal agency it is and help the region reach our shared goals of healthy salmon populations and a clean energy future, rather than focusing solely on increased hydropower sales and using a heavy-handed “take-it-or-sue-us” approach. 

Take action here to urge Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and the U.S. Senate to help BPA see the light on this critical issue. 

A wind-win solution

One last thought, cogently expressed by Alan Moore of SOS coalition partner Trout Unlimited in a Letter to the Editor of the Oregonian on May 9. After reading a quote from BPA’s Elliott Mainzer in a May 6 Oregonian article that "every time we choke down 1,000 megawatts [of wind energy], another 250, 500 or 1,000 megawatts shows up," Alan noticed that the 1,000 MW figure looked a little familiar. As he put it in his LTE, “[t]he proliferation of wind alone makes replacing the 1,000 megawatts of hydropower needed to reopen the lower Snake River and access to more than 5,000 stream miles of the best salmon and steelhead habitat left in the world look like a pittance.” 

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Alan. Taking out the four costly and outdated dams on the lower Snake River could indeed largely make BPA’s overgeneration problem go away. Shouldn’t we be working toward such “wind-win” solutions?

Read an extended version of this post from Rhett Lawrence at the SOS website. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Tale of Two Rivers – Seattle, May 24th

Conservationists come together to discuss successful efforts for salmon protection and what still needs to be done.

On May 24 in Seattle, WA, Save Our Wild Salmon, along with several other environmental organizations, will celebrate the monumental removal of two salmon-killing dams in the Elwha River and discuss the campaign to remove the four lower Snake River dams. We will also show The Greatest Migration, a film that traces the incredible journey of Snake River salmon. 

When: Tuesday, May 24, 2011, 6:30-8:30 p.m. PST (the program will begin at 7:00 p.m.)

Where: REI Flagship Store – 222 Yale Ave North, Seattle, WA 

Additional info: Joseph Bogaard ( or Patricia Sumption (

Cost: Event is FREE and open to the public, but RSVPs are appreciated

Guest speakers for the event are: Joseph Bogaard, Outreach Director at Save Our Wild Salmon, Michael Garrity, NW Policy Director at American Rivers, Shawn Cantrell, Executive Director at Seattle Audubon, and Tom O’Keefe, NW Director of American Whitewater.

This event is sponsored by: American RiversAmerican Whitewater Save Our Wild SalmonSierra ClubREISeattle Audubon

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rep. Markey to Bonneville: Please Reconsider Proposed Wind Power Policy

Congressman Markey, we heart you.

Last week, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu addressing current issues with Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and its approach to wind energy production and water spill levels in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

In recent months, BPA has claimed that legal constraints for salmon may force it to shut off wind energy production in the Northwest when there’s too much water in the rivers (a so-called “over-generation” situation). BPA has therefore proposed a “Record of Decision on Environmental Redispatch,” which outlines its approach for dealing with the issue. This plan, which BPA will likely implement very soon as spring runoff increases river flows, will undermine renewable energy in the Northwest, threaten salmon, and contradict the policies of the Obama administration and the Department of Energy.

In his letter, Rep. Markey writes that he is aware that changes in power systems will present new challenges to energy managers. However, he asks that BPA utilize resources such as the Department of Energy to create sound policies, instead of shutting off wind. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), as well as Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), also sent letters to BPA recently, asking it to reconsider its Record of Decision and expressing their concern that it would “cause significant problems for renewable energy development in our region.”

While over-generation situations do occur, the salmon aren’t forcing BPA to order reduced spill; BPA is largely making that decision on its own. Currently, BPA follows Washington State’s dissolved gas standard (water spilled over the dams increases the amount of dissolved gas in the river, moderate levels of which salmon can readily handle), which allows a dissolved gas level of 115%. If Washington adopted or federal agencies implemented Oregon’s standard, maximum dissolved gas levels would increase to 120%. This shift could allow more spill and significantly lessen the need to curtail wind energy. It also would be better for salmon - in fact, more protective – by easing their migration past these dams. See our previous blog post on this issue

Rep. Markey presented four additional alternatives to address these high-runoff scenarios in his letter last week: displacing thermal electricity generation in the West; managing the transmission grid more effectively and efficiently; creating better weather forecasting techniques to be able to predict when these situations may occur; and evaluating options for exporting excess power to other regions.
Of course, in our opinion the best option (which didn’t come up in Rep. Markey‘s letter) would be to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River. By removing these dams, salmon would be reconnected to the best habitat left in the continental United States, BPA’s alleged “salmon constraints” would largely be lifted, and salmon would thrive. Many scientists and economists agree that removing the four lower Snake River dams is the best, most cost-effective, and perhaps only option to protect and rebuild endangered Snake River salmon populations.

Salmon are amazing animals that travel thousands of miles in their migration from mountain streams to the Pacific Ocean and back again. They play a key role in the culture, economy, and ecology of the Pacific Northwest – feeding us, our ancient forests, and more than 150 additional animal species. Save Our Wild Salmon thanks Senator Merkley and Representatives Markey, Blumenauer, and Inslee for their leadership on both salmon protection and clean energy development – two things that we think go hand in hand here in the Northwest. We are grateful for their efforts to draw more attention to this issue and hope that their words encourage Secretary Chu and others to re-examine BPA’s proposed plan. This issue is expected to come to a head in the coming days, as warming spring temperatures will lead to increased water levels at the dams. 

Let’s hope BPA decides to listen to the leadership of the Northwest on this issue.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Moving Beyond The Courtroom, Saving Wild Salmon: "The Job Is Not Done"

- from the desk of Nicole Cordan, Policy & Legal Director, SOS
This spring, a federal court is poised to make a decision that could change the fate of endangered species across the entire country.
Conservation, fishing groups, the State of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe marched back to court yesterday for a hearing on the Columbia-Snake salmon plan. The plan is meant to mitigate the harmful impacts of dams on endangered salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia-Snake River Basin, but it has yet to do the job.
Over the next several weeks, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden will decide if the Obama administration’s federal salmon plan passes legal muster — a decision that will do one of two things for endangered wildlife: protect the Endangered Species Act (ESA), or weaken it.

The Greatest Migration Teaser from EP Films on Vimeo.
This court case is about much more than a fish. This case is about how we, as a country, decide to chart a path to our future — and whether we decide to save wild salmon, grizzlies and other iconic American wildlife, or let them slip to extinction.
From OPB’s Ecotrope, Judge James Redden said:
“Everyone agrees habitat improvement is needed, but scientific support for actual benefits from habitat improvement is challenging and perhaps questionable.”
The biological opinion on the hydropower system “leaves no room for error,” he said. Yet there are “gaps” in the government’s goals and achievements for salmon survival and recovery. “For some species, only a quarter of the expected survival benefits have occurred.”
Is the “unproven” habitat mitigation plan for the dams based on “independent, reliable and verifiable scientific information”?
“That’s what we hope to learn today,” Redden said.
Judge Redden has instituted more protections for endangered salmon and steelhead on the Columbia-Snake Rivers than the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations combined.
Snake River salmon swim farther and climb higher than any other salmon on earth. Their migration is legendary, awe-inspiring and at times unbelievable.
In the Pacific Northwest, the science is clear: removing the four lower Snake River dams is the most effective, if not only, path to restore healthy, abundant salmon and steelhead populations. But even outside of the region, this decision would have a major ripple effect. It would be the largest river restoration in our nation’s history and a motivator for the rest of the country to “win the future” by building a bright future not just for salmon in the Northwest, but for other endangered wildlife and communities across the US. The Obama administration has yet to consider this option despite strong urging from fisheries biologists, former Northwest governors, and people and businesses across the nation.

Judge Redden took the bench this morning and said: “The job is not done.” And we couldn’t agree more.
But as we wait to hear what the judge has to say, we know this is not just up to the court and our fight doesn’t stop today. This is up to the American people. We have the opportunity to save these one-of-a-kind fish. I don't want to tell future generations that we had the opportunity to save wild salmon and we did nothing. I want to tell them that we fought to save them. That we fought to save the jobs and the communities that depend upon them. That we fought to ensure transparency in our federal decisions.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

2 Important Oregonian Stories

Salmon wars return to Portland courtroom: Can at-risk fish and hydroelectric dams coexist?

For the past eight years, the champion of Northwest wild salmon and steelhead has been an 82-year-old judge with a sharp pen and a willingness to use it.

To date, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden has sunk two plans the federal government argued would allow it to operate hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin without jeopardizing the region's signature fish.

In Portland on Monday, he holds what could be his last hearing in the salmon case, a final discussion of the government's third shot at a 10-year plan. He'll have to cut through the fog of fish numbers before handing down a decision with consequences for electricity ratepayers and farmers in four states.

Helped by favorable ocean conditions and fishing restrictions, the numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia have surged since 2001. Returns -- mostly hatchery fish -- hit post-dam-building highs for much of the past decade at Bonneville Dam, the first on an upstream journey that can run over eight dams and more than 900 miles.

Redden's focus is narrower: the seven endangered or threatened wild runs that pass Bonneville, including 77 smaller populations native to tributaries in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. Their returns are also up sharply in the past decade, a promising sign after stark declines in the 1990s.

But a closer look at the numbers shows key runs remain perilously low -- and well below minimum benchmarks for removing them from the endangered species list. 

More here. 


Habitat restoration soars on Columbia River, but fish benefits are murky

CHINOOK, Wash. -- This winter, restoration workers punched a 12-foot concrete culvert through the rock rip-rap that lines the Columbia River near the ocean and waited for fish to hit wetlands walled off for a century.

They didn't have to wait long.

On March 15, the first check, biologists counted 20 juvenile salmon. On April 29, the count totaled 723, mostly chinook and chum.

That's the kind of success story operators of the Columbia basin's federal hydropower dams need a whole lot more of. Their 10-year dam operations plan, under the skeptical eye of U.S. District Judge James A. Redden, banks heavily on habitat improvements to bolster seven threatened runs of wild salmon and steelhead that begin life above Bonneville Dam.

It's likely the biggest restoration effort in the nation, from the Columbia's mouth to tributaries deep into eastern Oregon, Idaho and Washington. If it works, it could help lift the fish off the endangered species list, dim the spotlight on dams and reduce demands for Snake River dam removal.

But translating the effort into hard fish survival numbers that will satisfy the court is another story.

More here. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Oral Arguments for Salmon Restoration on Monday, May 9th

Oral arguments will begin on Monday, May 9th at 9:30 AM in Portland, Oregon in a landmark case to be ruled on later this year by U.S. District Court Judge James Redden (National Wildlife Federation et al v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al). The case reviews the Obama administration’s 2010 federal salmon plan that sets policy on how to operate the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The plan, also known as a Biological Opinion (BiOp), attempts to address the significant harm the federal dams cause to salmon and steelhead protected by the Endangered Species Act. The actions called for by the plan are almost indistinguishable from previous plans that were rejected by the courts, which were rejected by the courts. The plan currently under scrutiny also rolls back important protections now in place and will cost almost $1 billion per year over the next 10 years.

The salmon community has five basic concerns associated with the BiOp: the plan rolls back current salmon protections, sidesteps climate change impacts, ignores the best available salmon science, uses a faulty legal standard and analytical framework, and offers less protection for more money.

Stay tuned for our post-hearing update.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

PBS Nature "Salmon: Running the Gauntlet" - Watch Full Episode Online

Last Sunday night, we gathered with our friends and neighbors to watch the PBS Nature premiere of Salmon: Running the Gauntlet. We're so excited that our issue, which is just as important nationally as it is regionally, is getting this kind of great exposure.

Going beyond the debate over how to save an endangered species,
the film investigates the parallel stories of collapsing Pacific salmon populations and how biologists and engineers have become instruments in audacious experiments to replicate every stage of the fish’s life cycle. In its exposure of a wildly creative, hopelessly complex, and stunningly expensive approach to managing salmon, the film reveals one of the most ambitious plans ever conceived for taking the reins of the planet.

The story of salmon is one of
the nature stories of our time – how we became entangled in the life of creatures at once resilient and fragile, manipulated and wild, and whether they, and we, might recover from that intrusion.
“If the fish were in any worse shape, they wouldn’t be savable, if they were in any better shape, people wouldn’t care as much. This is the time.” — Former Chief of Fisheries for Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Jim Martin.

But even as we watched the industrial side of the story, we were brought back to one crystal clear fact: salmon are survivors.

They aren't limping along because of the techno-fixes, they are fighting harder to live in spite of it. If we stepped up and took the one action that scientists have pointed to for decades — removing the four lower Snake River dams — it would be the largest river restoration in our nation’s history and a motivator for the rest of the country to “win the future” by building a bright future not just for salmon in the Northwest, but for other endangered wildlife and communities across the US.

Co-producer and writer, Jim Norton said:

We hope audiences will simply celebrate salmon themselves – their truly extraordinary life history and why they stubbornly remain icons of wildness, resilience, and abundance. Certainly, we hope this episode will contribute to an appreciation of their role in stitching together oceans and continents, estuaries and alpine meadows, coastal rainforests and high deserts. By extension, people should come away with an understanding of why their decline is so consequential on so many levels.

Also, we hope audiences will explore the original assumptions that informed our approach to managing salmon – and how committed we remain to trying to make that story work despite 150 years of evidence that those assumptions might be leading us astray. At incalculable cost, we constructed a reality out of our illusions and have forgotten which is which. Maybe it’s time for a new story.

If you give salmon a wild, free-flowing river, they will survive. The Columbia-Snake Rivers may not be in your own backyard, but the effects of this decision certainly will be. Take action to save wild salmon!

Read more about this fight, over on Patagonia's blog...

Watch the full episode of Salmon: Running the Gauntlet here.

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

Photos © Neil Ever Osborne, iLCP