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Thank the Barges, the Engineers
and the Scientists

by Robert Stokes, Natural-Resource Economist
Wheat Life, May 2005

How will Columbia and Snake River salmon fare during the upcoming drought year? Predicting nature is risky. But my money says the salmon will do just fine.

Thank the barges.

More precisely, thank the engineers and scientists who had the vision and courage to buck conventional wisdom by creating the Snake and Columbia River salmon transportation (barging) program. Also thank them for having the (less common) courage to subject their creation to scientific testing. Let's begin their success story by reviewing the current drought situation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) has collected more than a half-century of rainfall and snow pack data. This year's studies suggest water flow in the Columbia will be better than local observation might suggest. This is because Canadian snow pack, typically producing a third of Columbia River water, is nearly normal (90-100 percent of historic average).

Good news from Canada is one reason irrigation withdrawals from the mainstem Columbia should not be in jeopardy. The electricity picture is also more promising than you might have feared. Demand never recovered from the 2001 price spike and new capacity has come online, primarily natural gas generation. Hydro now accounts for only 52 percent of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) supply to the Northwest market.

Back to fish. Elsewhere in the Columbia, flows are expected to be far below normal, ranging from 20-60 percent of historic averages. The Snake should be at a near record low. Accordingly, BPA is expected to hold as much spring runoff as possible to generate power later in the summer. BPA has the legal option of declaring a power emergency, as it did in 2001. That would trump Endangered Species Act (ESA) requirements to spill water for salmon during the spring and early summer. By the time you read this, critical salmon/water decisions will probably have been made, as required to accommodate the fish migration and barge transportation season which peaks from April 15 to June 15.

The relationship between water flow and juvenile salmon survival has always been controversial. Environmentalists and pro-salmon scientists and officials Thank the barges, the engineers and the scientiststake as gospel the view that more water means more survival. Their Bible is "Return to the River," a distinctly pro-environmentalist report to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Other scientists question that conclusion. University of Washington fisheries professor James Anderson is a notable critic. For now, the essential fact is that the law presumes beneficial relationships between juvenile salmon survival, higher volumes of water spilled over dams, and greater velocity (speed) of water passing through reservoirs.

Imagine you were a federal judge responsible for resolving salmon/water issues during the current drought. As a non-scientist, you must accept the prevailing "expert" view that increased water flow benefits salmon. You must also accept the law, here meaning the ESA. ESA never requires (and generally prohibits) accepting risk to listed populations to protect economic values.

Looking at the world through a judge's eye makes ESA "train wrecks" like Klamath and the spotted owl more understandable. A glimpse of what the "Salmon Mess of 2005" could look like comes from an environmentalist petition now before Portland Federal District Judge James Redden. Submitted by Earthjustice (former Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) and the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, the petition seeks:

Ask your favorite water expert what adoption of those measures could mean. This is my bottom line: little or no marketable power from dams now providing over 10 percent of BPA capacity; draining Snake River reservoirs (to speed water and salmon), irrespective of effects on barge transportation; spilling Idaho irrigation water for salmon, irrespective of drought year crop needs.

Predicting what federal judges might do (and explaining why they do it) is as risky as predicting natural processes. That said, I hopefully predict the above scenario will remain hypothetical. If so, substantial credit belongs to the barging program.

Judge Redden knows the water flow-salmon survival relationship only applies to salmon passing over dams and through reservoirs. During drought years most juveniles are barged to the ocean, as they will be this year. It has long been known that virtually all (98 percent) of barged salmon survive the downriver barge trip. Several years of tagging studies now document good ocean survival as well. In particular, juveniles barged during the last drought year (2001) produced excellent returns of both hatchery and "wild" (in-stream spawning) salmon.

Barging is no closer to perfection than other natural-resource management measures. Contact the Northwest Power and Conservation Council for more information about barging. In particular, ask about the several criteria by which the barging program is evaluated. My review suggests that barging amply satisfies ESA species survival requirements.

Species survival will (or should) be the focus of judicial concern. Maintaining larger salmon runs for the economic benefit of recreational, commercial and tribal fisheries may be a worthy goal, but one more properly addressed under terms of other laws. Likewise, concerns about other characteristics of rivers, like whether or not they are dammed.

My informant (unnamed at his request) expects Judge Redden to reject the environmentalist petition just described. One reason for confidence in that outcome is the barging program, which allows judges to enforce ESA's no-jeopardy rule without disrupting other river uses, like hydro, irrigation and water transportation. The other benefit of barging is continued salmon abundance. With confidence based on experience and scientific results, we can expect the 2005 cohort of barged juvenile salmon to return as adults as abundantly as their 2001 (drought year) brethren.

For both accomplishments, let's lift a glass to the barging guys.

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
Thank the Barges, the Engineers and the Scientists
Wheat Life - May 2005

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