I ran this column last year, but with the recent intense focus on dam breaching, I thought that I should change it up a little and run it again.
The statistics that I use were taken from 40 years of research by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, and compiled by retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist John McKern, who spent much of his 30-year career researching fish survival, and developing and implementing fish passage improvements at the Snake and Columbia river dams.
In the early 1990s, our small group of Potlatch employees, in cooperation with members of the Lewiston and Clarkston chambers of commerce, were researching environmental claims that the lower Snake River dams were devastating salmon runs. At that time, we learned about East Sand Island, a man-made island in the estuary of the Columbia River.
This island was formed from dredging deposits in 1983. And by 1984 Caspian terns, cormorants and gulls, which had colonized the island, were feasting on salmon smolts.
We thought: “Wow, this is an easy fix. Tear out a man-made island and save millions of endangered fish.”
The environmentalists beat us to the punch. They filed in federal court to protect the island and the birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Now we have the largest nesting colony of these non-endangered birds in the world on a man-made island. Every year, these birds slaughter 20 to 30 percent of juvenile salmon entering the ocean.
According to a study done by Oregon State University, between the years 2000 and 2015, the birds killed about 200 million juvenile fish. Since the island was created, they have probably consumed somewhere between 300 million and 400 million smolts.
And they’re still there.
After the fish leave the Columbia River, studies show that about 88 percent of the remaining fish die during their two or three years in the ocean from predators, adverse ocean conditions and commercial fishing. The Frazier River in Canada is very similar to the Columbia River system. It and other streams along the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada that have no dams have the same fish problems as the Columbia River system.
Bad ocean conditions equal bad fish runs.
Each year for the last three decades, about 40 percent of returning fish have been killed below Bonneville Dam by thousands of non-endangered seals and sea lions. There are about 8,000 of these animals now, and only in the last few years has there been any meaningful effort to control their exploding numbers.
The environmentalists have staunchly opposed any real effort to control these animals.
Then, further upstream, another 30 percent of the returning fish die from commercial and sport fishing, and Indian fisheries.
In the 1990s, a group of Idaho legislators took a helicopter ride from Lewiston to the mouth of the Columbia River. They counted more than 200 gill nets stretching across the two rivers. Gill nets are very proficient tools for catching large numbers of fish. They don’t differentiate between wild or hatchery fish, and they catch the largest and strongest fish, the ones that have the best chance of reproducing.
These nets have been seriously depleting the fish gene pool for decades. If these fish are truly endangered, why do we keep killing them? How many spotted owls and bald eagles are we allowed to kill?
I wholeheartedly support the right of Native Americans to harvest fish; I just believe that they should use other methods of harvest.
Environmental groups have done everything in their power to impede any real solutions to obvious problems. They claim to be trying to save the fish by supporting tearing out our dams when very credible studies dispute their allegations that dams are destroying the salmon runs. Their goal is to tear out the dams; salmon are just a tool they are using to achieve their goal of a free-flowing river.
If millions more fish returned, it would destroy their narrative against the dams.
Meanwhile, these same groups are forcing the closure of coal-fired power plants. During the next eight years, 12 coal-fired plants across the West will close. Enough dependable energy will be lost to power 3.8 million homes.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council was set up by Congress to monitor situations like this. The council continually runs computerized scenarios for what they call “loss of load probability,” the chance that our supply of power will not keep up with demand. A rating of 5 percent or less is acceptable.
The computer simulations are predicting a 26 percent to 33 percent chance of loss by 2026.
That means, in other words, power blackouts. And that’s not even considering the loss of our dams. We get 60 percent of our power from dams.
Environmentalists claim to only want to tear out the four lower Snake River dams, but their history shows different. In the 1990s they went after the Snake River dams and the dams on the Columbia.
Two Native American tribes recently declared their intentions to go after the Columbia River dams. Only four of the 13 endangered fish stocks are on the Snake River drainage; the rest are on the Columbia River. If the four lower Snake River dams are breached, the rest will soon follow.
Hydroelectric dams and gas- and coal-fired power plants are “dispatchable,” meaning they can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice when power demand rises or falls. Wind and solar plants can’t do that. They only produce power when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and technology doesn’t exist to store the power. There is no way that these green sources can completely replace our present system and it would cost tens of billions of dollars for new power sources.
Our hydropower system of dams and power grid are the envy of the rest of the world, where electricity bills are high and power blackouts are a daily occurrence.
We’ve seen what happened in Texas and Oregon when their power grids fail. That will soon be us if we let the environmentalists have their way.
Dugger retired as a journeyman carpenter from Clearwater Paper. He lives in Lewiston.