As the hour of a final decision draws dangerously near on whether the federal government will uphold or cut summer spill - a key central component of Columbia Basin salmon recovery - it's past time that someone set the record straight. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has done a superb job misleading the general public about what's really at stake, claiming little harm to salmon and inflated savings.
Unfortunately, there are a few points that BPA is utterly ignoring. First, according to a new analysis, BPA's proposal to cut summer spill could actually kill around 700,000 young salmon, resulting in a loss of roughly 15,000 adult salmon. Second, it's no simple task to find actions that can mitigate for that substantial harm. As a result, BPA is searching high and low, and twisting arms to come up with a plan that will appease politicians. Among the options being peddled around is a proposal to place the burden of "offsetting" the harm squarely on the backs of fishing men and women. Fortunately, commercial and sport fishing industry representatives have united to reject that plan.
Salmon mean business to the Northwest. Salmon and steelhead fishing-based businesses keep jobs in rural communities, put food on our plates, capture tourism dollars and provide priceless outdoor recreational opportunities to share with our families, friends and neighbors. Our once mighty salmon runs represent an important natural resource conservatively worth at least $13 billion that can, if properly treated, return many times the dollars to the regional economy for every dollar invested in salmon recovery to date. Furthermore, effective restoration investments today pay back economic dividends in perpetuity for all future generations.
Salmon recovery is a social and economic investment, not a cost. But like any investment, restoration dollars should be invested wisely, not frittered away. The federal government's current salmon investment policy, however, is bankrupt, and recent proposals to cut summer spill and somehow "make it up" by closing what little is left of already severely restricted sport and commercial fisheries would be like burning dividend checks to keep warm.
All sport, commercial and tribal fishing combined amounts to on average about 5 percent of all human-created salmon mortality. The Columbia River dams, however, account for over 80 percent. In other words, close all Columbia-based salmon and steelhead fishing coast-wide, but do nothing about the dams, and you'll do little to slow the spiral towards extinction, much less make progress towards recovery. All commercial and sport fishermen are required by stringent regulations, to avoid catching endangered or threatened fish. The main impact of more fisheries closures would simply be to prevent them catching hatchery fish, and in the process destroying thousands of jobs. The main problem for Columbia River salmon and steelhead is and has always been the millions of juvenile fish that perish in warm water reservoirs and in turbines at each dam.
That fish do better being flushed around a dam rather than forced to go through turbines is not a hard concept to grasp. Flushing a little water through the spillways for young fish during river migration helps move them faster and more naturally, and avoid death by turbine or predator. In other words, operating the river more like a river helps fish survive.
The current BPA proposal to cut spill is being pushed forward in the name of the almighty dollar, not biology. Fifteen thousand adult fish is a very high price to pay to save around 10 cents per month per household in electricity costs, especially since there is no guarantee that ratepayers will ever see that minimal savings on their energy bills.
Canceling dam mitigation measures that help young salmon migrate to the sea, or trading gains for losses elsewhere, is moving full speed backwards, reversing hard-won restoration gains and wasting a precious opportunity. Exceptionally good ocean conditions will soon change. We have but one chance to turn our good fortune from Mother Nature into lasting salmon recovery.
Let's not watch it float away on a river of greed.
Bruce Buckmaster is the president of Bio-Oregon, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors for Salmon for All. Buzz Ramsey is the Northwest Sales and Promotional Manager for Luhr Jensen & Sons, Inc., a manufacturer of fishing tackle and largest employer in Hood River, supporting 200 family-wage jobs. He is also a board member of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and honorary director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. Norman Ritchie is the president of Association of Northwest Steelheaders, an association of sportfishing businesses and anglers throughout the Northwest.