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The Same River Twice

by Seth Zuckerman
Tidepool, May 31, 2005

Almost every June, on the river bar below my house, I spend part of a morning trying to net a few dozen chinook salmon. These aren't the barbecue-sized variety, which run up the river each autumn en route to their spawning grounds. Instead, my friends and I are pursuing their offspring, fingerlings that become stranded in puddles as our northern California river drops toward its summer levels.

With luck we will have beaten the raccoons to these fish. We'll herd the fingerlings into seine nets, decant them into buckets, and tote them to a quiet eddy along the bank, from which they will continue their migration down the Mattole River. At times, I wonder whether this stranding is part of the ancient process of natural selection, and our charity is mere meddling. But with the local salmon runs so diminished, we give these smolts the benefit of the doubt and steal them from the beaks of kingfishers, looking forward to a day when a bucketful of fingerlings won't seem to matter so much.

Last spring found me 500 miles to the northeast, pondering the migration of salmon in eastern Washington's Snake River. The Snake, and the Columbia into which it empties, is stoppered by a series of dams that generate electricity and improve riverboat navigation but impede the movement of salmon. Ocean-bound smolts - at the same point in their lives as the ones I haul to safety in the Mattole - are most affected. Helping salmon downstream has become my springtime ritual and community service rolled into one, and I'm curious what kind of help the salmon of the Snake receive.

By the end of May, the roadside grasses of the Palouse are already fading to brown, and the surrounding hills are as arid as my home valley is lush. The Snake River, fed by snowmelt from unseen mountains, is a ribbon of oasis in this land where a wet year brings fifteen inches of rain and snow. Even more than the climate, the sheer scale of the Snake River and its wounds are foreign to me. The crest of Lower Granite Dam is as wide as a highway, and in fact served as a public two-lane road until the clampdown following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. I need a security clearance and special escort to traverse the dam--a quarter-mile of earthen embankment, locks, and a concrete powerhouse, ten stories tall. Nothing like this exists in the river basin that I call home.

For years, a debate has raged in the Northwest about whether to rip apart this dam and three others like it. Salmonistas insist that breaching the dams is essential to the survival of salmon in the Snake River, while their opponents argue with equal fervor that the costs to the region's economy would be too great. Naturally, after a dozen years in service of Mattole River salmon, I enter this discussion with a predisposition toward the fish and the free-flowing river. But those years have also taught me to peer beneath the surface for the inevitable complexities.

The Snake poses serious challenges to young salmon. Predators such as the northern pike-minnow thrive in the warm water that accumulates behind the dams. Gulls prey on disoriented fish below the spillways. Salmon are also susceptible to a syndrome like the bends, caused when river water entrains an excess of nitrogen as it thunders over the crest of a dam. And going through the turbines is like swimming into a pressurized Cuisinart. But the toughest challenge is the lassitude of the dammed water. Before the Snake River dams were built in the 1960s and '70s, freshets of spring snowmelt would have sped these young fish to the ocean. They approach the Pacific tail-first, washed along in the current while peering upstream at a view they will encounter in reverse a few years later, when they return to the same river to spawn. In a string of reservoirs, where the current averages less than a mile per hour, they travel downstream too slowly, and their internal clocks trigger a demand for salt water when they are still far from the Pacific.

All hazards considered, down-migrating fish have about a 90 percent chance of making it past any given dam and its reservoir. (bluefish: 82% is more accurate if reservoirs are included. About 40% survive to the estuary. See dampool.htm) Those might sound like good odds, but to run a gauntlet of eight dams and survive, a fish has to be "a fugitive from the law of averages," in cartoonist William Mauldin's phrase. Just half of the juvenile salmon reach the Columbia estuary alive-unless they receive some help along the way.

Dave Hurson is a gruff twenty-four-year employee of the Army Corps of Engineers. As district head of operations, he's responsible for executing the Corps' plan to liberate salmon from the dangers of the dammed Snake. The river moves the salmon smolts too slowly? Well then, soldier, barge them downstream! Think of the barge as an armored personnel carrier for fish. It delivers young salmon from Lower Granite Dam to tidewater in about thirty-six hours, a trip that would take several weeks if they traversed those three-hundred-odd river miles with the current.

Hurson's first task is to round up the fish. Most of the salmon headed for the dam's powerhouse will first bump into an angled screen that guides them forty feet up a passageway, Hurson explains. They travel through a quarter-mile-long pipe and emerge onto a metal grate, where Hurson and I first catch sight of them. Borne on a torrent, the silvery young chinooks writhe in an attempt to point into the current as instinct demands. The flow flushes the eight-inch fingerlings into a concrete flume.

The fish winnowed from the river wait for as much as a day in a gigantic trough until it's time to load the next barge. Hurson escorts me on board, where a man in suspenders and hard hat guides a hose as big around as his thigh into the vessel's hold. He gives a signal, and a gusher issues from the hose, laced with dark silhouettes of young chinook salmon twisting in the frothy stream. Barging is far from the first human intervention in these salmon's lives: four out of five of these smolts were conceived in buckets and raised in a hatchery.

The rationale for barging has an appealing simplicity: Fish survive poorly in the river, so they will fare better if portaged around the slack water. While fish that make the journey on their own have a 50 percent (40 percent) survival rate, 98 percent of those that embark on the good ship Chinook are discharged alive into the Columbia below Bonneville, the lowest dam on the river. Given that many Pacific salmon runs have in recent years become extinct or threatened, this should be good news.

Unfortunately, this isn't the entire story, as we're learning thanks to the technology known as fish tracking. Thousands of barged and unbarged smolts are implanted with a tiny electronic capsule known as a PIT tag, which serves as an internal identity card for that fish. Any time it passes a counting station, it receives an electrical pulse and sends back a unique string of ciphers. In a kind of fishy Total Information Awareness, the salmon will announce their return to detectors built into the fish ladders, and be recorded in the databases that monitored their departure years before.

Since a barged smolt has about twice the chance of reaching tidewater as one that swims on its own, you'd expect that barged smolts would be twice as likely as unbarged ones to survive to spawn. But researchers have calculated that the actual advantage for the barged fish is closer to 10 or 20 percent, suggesting that barged fish die in greater numbers later. In other words, a fish emerging from the barge in the Lower Columbia is much less likely to return and spawn than a fish that made its own way there.

No one knows why. Some speculate that the fish contract diseases from each other, or that the chinook are stressed by the larger steelhead that share the ride with them. Alternatively, the salmon might simply not be finding their way back to the Snake. Spawning salmon navigate by smell. They are thought to remember the sequence of smells in their home streams and to recognize the scent of the right tributary to enter as returning adults. In an effort to provide barged fish the same opportunity, the barges are plumbed to take in river water throughout the journey and to circulate it through the fish holds. But this stratagem may not suffice. Perhaps the salmon's senses are overwhelmed by the stench of so many of their own kind in close quarters, or perhaps the smells go by so quickly that the aroma of home is unrecognizable when the fish make their way back upriver to spawn.

In Bruce Chatwin's book The Songlines, he describes an Australian aborigine riding in a Land Cruiser along a trail that he was accustomed to walk while singing a spirit song. The aborigine chants at a furious speed so that the story can keep pace with the passage of landmarks to which the song is tied. In a moment of insight, the driver slows to a walking pace, and the story proceeds at its normal tempo. I imagine salmon in the barge enduring a similar hardship.

Whatever the reason, the barges can't replace the river that the fish would follow to the sea if given a fair chance. The salmonologists failed to anticipate other difficulties that barging would create--a common error. How many times have any of us fingered a particular factor as the root of our troubles--a shortage of cash, the absence of a love interest, the rule of a Ba'athist dictator --��only to find that the solution we impose on the situation is as bad as the original problem?

Such errors are the predictable result of an engineering mindset, which imagines the world as a orderly, linear system of single causes leading to discrete effects at precise costs. But living systems - rivers, relationships, societies -��do not respond so neatly. Those rare times when our actions lead only to their intended result seem nothing short of a miracle. ��

Satisfied that I've seen enough of the Army Corps of Engineers' solutions to the salmon's plight, I rendezvous with Save Our Wild Salmon's local organizer, Kell McAboy.

"We're putting so much money into barging fish and spillways and PIT tags, it's bizarre," she says as we lean against the railing that overlooks the outlet of Lower Granite Dam. Instead, her group advocates breaching the dams-- excavating their earthen portion, while leaving the concrete locks and powerhouse high and dry on the edge of the freed river.

McAboy walks me into the visitor center to see a relief map of the Snake and Columbia basins, and explains Save Our Wild Salmon's reasoning. The lower Snake River would offer salmon a clear shot from the Columbia all the way up to the largely undammed Clearwater and Salmon rivers, tributaries of the Snake that rise in Idaho wilderness areas and offer the best remaining spawning grounds for salmon in the basin. She deconstructs the Army Corps' spin on salmon, showing how they blame the decline of the fish on everything but the dams and the 130 miles of slack water they create. The salmon may be dying a death of a thousand cuts, but the dams are a very deep one.

McAboy has the hardest beat of any Save Our Wild Salmon campaigner. She's based in Spokane and covers the farm country of Idaho and eastern Washington, regions where farmers rely on the river for transportation, and where the idea of dismantling a perfectly good dam makes as much sense as taking firewood to the dump. So she couches her arguments in an economic vein - a tone that comes easily to her, thanks perhaps to her previous job with the Northwest Mining Association and her upbringing. "I grew up fishing with my dad in Puget Sound," she says. "I paid for college by putting salmon in a can." When she went to a hearing in Spokane about the dams, she recalls, she was captivated - and surprised that breaching was even on the table. "The thought of removing the dams, having free-flowing rivers, and having a bunch of salmon returning to the river was really exciting," she says.

I ask her to describe her vision for the Snake River, once the dams are gone. "I see guide shops for rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fishing," she says. "This would be a family river - just Class II and III [rapids]. You could put in here and go all the way down to the Tri-Cities and the Walla Walla Valley. On the way, you could stop at the dams and do some wine-tasting."

It's a vision that matches our sense of what should have been. If a plan to build the Snake River dams were on the table today, it would be laughed out of committee. The benefits--a bit of hydropower and the capacity to barge freight all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, 462 miles upriver from the Pacific--are too small, and we have learned the hard way that the costs to salmon runs are easy to underestimate.

So recreating the free-flowing river is a tantalizing prospect. But how to get there? To some, the dams are like splinters in your finger that need to be tweezed out. But in other ways they're like fishhooks: yanking them out would compound the damage. Together, the four dams have collected enough sediment to bury San Francisco hip deep, and all of it would wash downstream if the dams were breached. Not only could the resulting muddy water put the salmon at risk, but plugs of sediment could temporarily interrupt the fish's access to tributaries where they spawn. Perhaps nature's recuperative powers would rapidly reforest the raw riverbanks and heal the salmon's habitat--but vegetation tends to recover slowly in the arid West.

An outbreak of dam removals did ripple through the United States in the late 1990s, but those dams were different: they were significantly lower, they created much smaller impoundments, and most were located in moister climates. For instance, the celebrated Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River was just 24 feet tall and created an 1100-acre lake until it was removed in 1999. The Snake's Lower Granite Dam is four times as tall; in combination with the other three Snake River dams, it forms a stair-stepped lake 130 miles long. Scale and context do matter. Considering these factors in a 2002 article in Bioscience, ecologists N. LeRoy Poff and David Hart conclude, "We need a predictive environmental science of dam removal to help society decide where to spend limited resources to maximize restoration potential."

Breaching appeals to our longing to restore nature as it was before we committed these colossal blunders; I recognize the longing as the same desire that has driven my efforts in the Mattole. And yet, in its single-minded focus, the breaching movement seems to embrace the same engineering mindset that created the dams. The salmon are in trouble because of the dams--remove the dams, and the salmon will do fine. Single cause, single solution, single effect. Sadly, it isn't as simple as selecting "Undo" from the River menu. If dammed rivers have taught us anything, it's that stacks of engineering studies must be taken with a grain of salt, whether they advocate building dams or breaching them. That isn't to say we leave the dams intact, any more than it means an angler ought to live with a fishhook in his palm for the rest of his days. But it does suggest than as we invite salmon to repopulate this landscape, we triangulate on the truth through other sources and ways of knowing as well.

While the benefits of dam breaching may be uncertain, the costs are better understood. The Northwest would need to replace 5 percent of its annual electricity production, on average. The goods that now ride the Snake River by barge would instead move by rail or truck, at least as far as the confluence of the Snake and the Columbia. That's mostly grain, with some lumber and pulp thrown in (see snaketon.htm). A few decades ago, before the dams were built, almost every town in eastern Washington was served by rail spurs that hauled its grain to market. But since 1970, 1900 miles of rail line have been decommissioned, as barges and short-haul trucking have displaced trains in the southeast corner of the state. Even where rail service is available, it's substantially more expensive: 40 cents per bushel from Lewiston to Portland, Oregon, versus 22 cents by barge. That represents a hefty difference in the farmer's profit margin, when you consider that a bushel delivered to Portland brings about $3.50 (to $4.00).

That's why wheat farmers like sixty-three-year-old John Aeschliman have fought breaching with both barrels. Aeschliman's grandfather began raising wheat here on 320 acres back in 1896. Two generations later, Aeschliman cultivates about 4,000 acres, which supports him, a hired hand, and one of his sons. "When I started farming in 1961, the price of wheat was $1.60 a bushel, and an hour of legal help cost $15," he tells me on a tour of his farm, a few miles north of Lower Granite. "Now the lawyer charges $200 an hour, and if the price of wheat had gone up at the same rate, I'd be getting more than $20 a bushel. Instead, I'm getting $3.50."

Economics isn't really what Aeschliman wants to talk about, though. Heedless of the spring rain, he shepherds me around his fields to show me his system of no-till farming. Instead of turning and disking the soil, he plants his seed right in the previous year's stubble, leaving the ground intact. He controls weeds with herbicide, but believes that's a small price to pay for reducing erosion. Standing on a knoll overlooking his farm, he tells me, "The shape of that land is not even close to what it was when my grandfather started farming -- and all the land that's missing is down in the river." When Aeschliman was growing up, his path to the schoolbus was thick with mud; now, because he has forsworn the soil-busting plow, that mud has abated, and with it the rate of soil loss. It takes someone in his seventh decade of observing a place to notice such changes.

Darkness is falling as we sit in an aging Blazer outside his house. His dinner of steak and potatoes awaits inside, but he has a few more things to say. "I believe in a God that created the universe. If you read the manufacturer's recommendations - the Bible - it says, 'you take care of this and protect it.' ... Now, I don't want salmon to become extinct, but I don't want people to be dying for lack of food, either. If we could put a man on the moon, we can figure this out. Man and fish can both survive."

The merits of Aeschliman's farming systems are fodder for a different essay, but his adoption of no-till may make his farm more compatible with salmon in at least one respect: Erosion is one of the many threats to the survival of wild runs.

Breaching the dams would definitely free the river, which might or might not succeed in saving the salmon. But it would also rearrange the cultural landscape. Like the salmon, wheat farmers in eastern Washington are struggling to hang on, and the loss of cheap freight could be the coup de gr?��ce. Who or what would replace them? As in any ecosystem, all of its parts--wheat farmers, wild-river advocates, PIT-tagging biologists--are connected. If any were to disappear, the effects on the whole system would be unpredictable, but for this one certainty: a piece of the truth about the river would be lost to our collective knowledge.

Though much smaller and rawer than the Snake, the Mattole bears its own set of wounds. Much of the gravel that forms the river bar below my house was washed into the Mattole during the postwar timber boom. Forty years ago, our tiny coastal river had swimming holes too deep for divers to touch bottom. Then careless logging and gargantuan floods conspired to fill those pools with gravel--the very sediment that creates the puddles that trap the fingerlings that I haul in buckets to the river.

In the Mattole valley, we have our Hursons, our Aeschlimans, and our McAboys. At times, I've been one of the McAboys myself. The first aerial photographs of our area, taken in the early '40s, depict a narrow channel overhung with two-hundred-foot-tall Douglas fir trees and limby cottonwoods. For a long time after I first looked at those photos and compared them with the current landscape, I felt a deep grief that I could salve only with the thought that some day the river would cleanse itself of that burden of gravel, the trees would grow back, and the swimming holes would return. Along with many of my neighbors, I've fought to end destructive logging practices, so that the river's healing could continue unabated. We've planted willows, redwoods, and Douglas-fir, anchored logs in creeks, and excavated muddy stream crossings. But after observing the river for more than a decade and learning about the pace of ecological change, I have come to accept that although some creeks may recover in my lifetime, the mainstem of our river may never revert to its state of sixty years ago. Sea level may rise so high that the river's flow can't flush out the gravel, or the climate may become drier and warmer so the same trees won't grow back along the river's edge. We'll keep doing our best by the river and the salmon, but it will never be 1941 again.

The postwar landowners thought they could log the forest and reap only the benefits--cash, extra pasture, and relief from the unfair tax on their standing timber. But the unintended consequences have left us scrambling to sustain our salmon runs. In trying to hasten the watershed's recovery, I've committed the folly of the linear mindset, too, in errors numerous and embarrassing. After visiting the Snake, I'm more certain than ever that no single mindset or watershed plan will put the Mattole back just the way it was. Our watershed is healing into something new that we cannot anticipate. With luck, this scarred, imperfect river will still water our tomatoes and guide our salmon home.

Editor's note: This year's salmon runs on the Columbia have been disastrous by any measure, falling about two-thirds short of expectations, and dropping to less than half of already attenuated average for the last decade.

The runs of returning adults reflect the health of the entire system, from headwaters to estuary, open ocean and back again. Tidepool's Seth Zuckerman traveled to the Snake River basin in 2003 to chronicle the travails of salmon smolts that were attempting the 400-plus-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean to begin their adult lives, and the challenges that salmonophiles face in improving their prospects. This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Orion magazine.

Seth Zuckerman
The Same River Twice
Tidepool, May 31, 2005

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