Friday, October 28, 2011

WA Leaders: Support Salmon with Solutions Table

This week, Washington State’s Governor Christine Gregoire and Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were urged to take a new approach to Columbia Basin salmon restoration. The letter, signed by 15 Northwest conservation groups, asks Washington’s leaders to support the establishment of a new, stakeholder-based solutions table to save Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead.

The letter echoes a message nearly 1,200 American businesses sent to President Obama in August, just after a federal judge ruled the government’s plan inadequate and illegal. Conservationists, fishermen, and business leaders are calling for a new approach to salmon restoration that brings together affected communities to work collaboratively and craft a lawful, science-based plan that meets the needs of affected communities.

Click here to read the full letter.

Do you live in Washington State? Click here to contact Governor Gregoire and Senators Murray and Cantwell.

With four federal salmon plans ruled illegal since 1995, we’re long overdue to convene an inclusive, collaborative stakeholder process that is serious about saving salmon and protecting communities. Let’s make it happen.

Letter signers include: Sierra Club, NW Energy Coalition, Earthjustice, American Rivers, American Whitewater, Orca Network, Wild Steelhead Coalition, Save Our wild Salmon, People for Puget Sound, Washington Environmental Council, Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation, The Lands Council, Center for Environmental Law & Policy, The Mountaineers

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Elwha, then White Salmon. Next up: SNAKE

Watching the Condit Dam precision explosion today on the White Salmon River was an emotional experience. (In case you missed it, watch it HERE online.) The crowd was excited and jumpy in the final minutes leading up to the blast. Loud horns sounded the countdown. There were some tears of relief and joy, but mostly smiles and laughter. A strong sense of camaraderie was felt; everyone who was present cares about proper river restoration. Cares about wild fish recovering. Cares about the jobs to be created and the businesses to benefit. And everyone present knows just how hard it was to get to this day.

Like the two dams coming out on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, Condit Dam took more than a decade of negotiation, collaboration and review before breaching became a tangible possibility. Many heated debates, political and legal battles were waged to reach agreement. As a result, today is a day of celebration.

For other campaigns in river restoration, the Elwha and Condit dams represent renewed enthusiasm. They are extremely powerful reminders of what is possible. We CAN achieve a better future. We CAN save rivers, and save fish. And we WILL continue to do so.

There are many differences between Elwha dam removal, the breaching of Condit dam, and the four dams on the lower Snake River. But there are similar fundamentals. One is that when it costs more to leave dams in operation than it does to remove them, the dams are likely to go.

As the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers are reborn, and we see the communities around them benefit, jobs increase, and salmon return, we also step closer to success in restoring the lower Snake River, and the highest- and longest-migrating salmon assemblage in the world.

We won’t give up. While we’ve always known that we must, today we are reminded that we can, and will, succeed. 

Many thanks to partners that have worked hard to make a free-flowing White Salmon a reality: American Rivers, American Whitewater, Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of the White Salmon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, Mountaineers, Trout Unlimited.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Congressman Hastings: Playing Fast and Loose with the Salmon Facts

Many people are familiar with PolitiFact, a project of the St. Petersburg Times that fact-checks quotes by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups to determine their overall accuracy. A recent statement from Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA) about salmon restoration efforts in the Pacific Northwest got us wondering if it’s time for the debut of a salmon-oriented offshoot, FishFact.

Now, it’s certainly not unusual for members of Congress to occasionally engage in rhetorical hopscotch or to stretch the truth here and there in order to make a punchier point. But in his October 14 Weekly Message, “Protecting Northwest Investments,” Congressman Hastings takes the time-honored practice of embellishment a step further by contradicting himself in the course of a single news release.

Here’s where Congressman Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, gets tripped up by the facts, and by his own words:
  • Congressman Hastings says, “This year, the region will again experience record or near-record salmon returns.” In actuality, many key populations of wild salmon remain perilously low, with most wild runs still at or near the levels that led to their protection under the Endangered Species Act in the first place. Still, the Columbia Basin has seen modestly higher salmon returns over the past couple of years, with hatchery fish comprising about 80% of those returns. The near-unanimous scientific explanation for these slightly-better-than-average numbers? Good ocean conditions and an in-river salmon protection measure called spill, where federal agencies send water over the tops of dams to help young salmon safely reach the ocean during their spring and summer out-migrations. Even longtime opponents of spill, such as the Bonneville Power Administration, now admit that the practice works and has contributed to the recent boost in returns.
  • But Congressman Hastings then begs to differ with just about every fish biologist in the Northwest: “Unfortunately, new salmon-related regulations based on faulty science have led to wasteful spilling of water through [sic] federal dams…” The congressman does not elaborate on which new regulations or faulty science he’s referring to, nor why the spilling of water is wasteful; but perhaps most importantly, Mr. Hastings fails to square his critique of spill with his claims of record salmon returns. Since we don’t get a bump in fish numbers without spilling water over the dams, the congressman will need to choose which myth he’d like to perpetuate: spill is bad vs. record returns. In this case, he can’t have it both ways.
  • Congressman Hastings goes on to say that the federal government has done little “to address the most pressing threats to salmon.” We couldn’t agree more, but we suspect Mr. Hastings is referring to a different set of threats; while most scientists recognize the federal dams as the most significant threat to Columbia and Snake River salmon, it appears Congressman Hastings believes that salmon have more to fear from birds and sea lions. We don’t want to discount the impact that predation has on imperiled salmon populations, but let’s keep things in perspective: sea lions consume between 2-4% of returning salmon (specifically spring chinook), while the federal hydropower system accounts for as much as 75% of human-caused mortality for some stocks. Clearly we should do all we can to reduce salmon mortality across the board, but Congressman Hastings’ focus on downplaying and even ignoring the massive harm caused by the federal hydrosystem won’t get us very far. To achieve actual salmon recovery – wild salmon recovery – we must turn our collective attention to making meaningful changes at the federal dams. Scientists tell us that this is the path to salmon abundance.
  • Speaking of the federal dams, Congressman Hastings rarely misses an opportunity to dismiss lower Snake River dam breaching as a cockamamie idea, and his October 14 release is no exception; in it, he states, “Dam removal is an extreme action that would be devastating to the Pacific Northwest economy and is not proven to increase fish populations.” However, we’re not sure what evidence Mr. Hastings has to back either of these claims. In fact, study after study has concluded that removing the four dams on the lower Snake River is the most biologically certain (and perhaps only) way to recover imperiled Snake River salmon and steelhead. Other dam removals in the region (e.g., the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River) have already resulted in improved salmon returns. Furthermore, many studies have shown that dam removal is a cost-effective solution (and certainly more so than the current path of spending $1 billion per year on a salmon plan that’s not working) that would create thousands of jobs and revitalize rural economies from the Pacific Coast to Central Idaho.
Despite our clear differences with Congressman Hastings, we wholeheartedly agree with him on one point from his Weekly Message: when it comes to salmon recovery efforts, we should ensure that we’re “using the best data and science we have available.” To that end, we respectfully challenge Mr. Hastings to a “science-off.” Our data against his: may the best facts win.

Or better yet, we invite the congressman to join us in supporting a collaborative process where affected stakeholders can sit down together and discuss all scientifically credible salmon restoration options. Mr. Hastings has rejected this idea so far, but we think there’s a lot to be said for talking through our differences. A stakeholder table focused on solutions could be the key to resolving our decades-old salmon crisis; we hope Congressman Hastings is willing to pull up a chair.

Gilly Lyons is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition.

In the Northwest, dams are falling (but the sky is not)

While dams across the country are being removed to restore healthier, free-flowing rivers, in many ways the Northwest - and especially Washington and Oregon - has become the epicenter for the movement these days.

These historic projects are restoring healthy rivers, recovering fish populations, providing increased fishing opportunities, and creating much-needed jobs.  Our partners at American Rivers have rightly dubbed 2011 The Year of the River.

September on the Elwha

Year of the River: Episode 1 from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Amid much well deserved fanfare last month, the restoration of the Elwha River – previously throttled by two gigantic concrete walls for 100 years - began with massive jackhammers and backhoes. The removal of America's largest dams yet will require about 2.5 years to complete. During its pre-dam glory, the Elwha River drainage was a premier salmon and steelhead river - home to more 400,000 fish each year, including 100-pound chinook as well as chum, sockeye, coho, pinks, and steelhead. Restoring this river is expected to generate over time the greatest salmon restoration this country has yet seen, and with it, hundreds of jobs.

While there are some emerging debates and disagreements about techniques being used to restore salmon and steelhead populations, such as the sources of fish being used to repopulate the basin and whether the use of hatcheries in this case is a wise choice, Save Our Wild Salmon is excited about this project and the fact that we have progressed to the point where we are now having these types of debates, about how we will recover fish in the newly-restored river.

October on the White Salmon

Year of the River: Episode 2 from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Following quickly on the heels the Elwha River Project is the removal of Condit Dam and restoration of the White Salmon River, a tributary of the Columbia River in southwest Washington. On October 26, contractors will blast a hole in the dam's concrete base and drain the 92-acre reservoir in just six hours. The torrent will snake 3.3 miles downstream to the Columbia River, taking with it millions of cubic yards of sediment that have settled behind the dam over the past 98 years.

While Elwha River restoration is slow-going, a free-flowing White Salmon River will occur literally overnight, though the full removal of the dam is expected to take months, and washing out the load of sediments downstream from the dam site could potentially take a couple of years.

White Salmon Fall Chinook salmon were recently trapped downstream and transported above the dams into habitat they have not visited in nearly a century. They are already making nests and kick-starting the re-colonization process.

What this means for the Snake River 

Neither the White Salmon nor the Elwha River restoration projects were easy to pass or move forward. They are the result of years of hard work, collaborative effort, and scientific review. They are the result of strong leadership and legal process, bolstering regional economies and ecosystems.  While every river restoration project is different, lessons learned from the Elwha and Condit dam removal projects will be important in future policy decisions for other projects, such as on the Snake River.

Regardless of their differences, all these river restoration projects have similar traits in common: it costs more to leave these outdated, obsolete dams in place than it does to remove them. As we measure the salmon returning and the economic impact these projects have, we can look forward to future successful restoration projects. And know that it can be done. 

For recent coverage on the Elwha and White Salmon River Restoration efforts:

(1) Seattle Times: Elwha River Restoration video

(2) Elwha River Restoration Webcams.

(3) White Salmon River Restored  a timelapse project from filmmaker Andy Maser.

(4) Yakima-Herald Republic: Run Free, White Salmon

Thanks to Andy Maser Films for the awesome videos!