The Columbia/Snake rivers used to see annual wild salmon and steelhead runs of 10-16 million fish. The Snake River used to see about half of that run or 5 to 8 million fish. These fish came back year after year for free. No one had to lift a finger for this massive wealth to return to our streams throughout the Columbia/Snake Basin.
Today, agencies and media will often times report record runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia/Snake River Basin. I am here to report that no matter how "good" the run was last year and in recent years, we are still about 13.7 million fish short of historical runs or any record and when you factor in what we spend a year (up to a billion dollars) for our annual salmon/steelhead returns, you have to wonder why we continue to embrace a broken system.
The so-called record run of 2015 through the first dam on the Columbia River (Bonneville Dam) (Important note: numbers through Bonneville Dam do not include those fish returning to spawning grounds in the Lower Columbia River and Willamette River basins)
Total chinook adults (spring, summer and fall) 1,337,101 (of which 954,886 were fall chinook)
Total jack chinook (spring, summer and fall) 113,582 (of which 82,538 were fall chinook)
Total coho salmon adult 37,402
Total jack coho salmon 4,865
Total sockeye 510,706 (of which 90 percent died in warm slackwater reservoirs last summer before they could reach their spawning grounds in Washington and Idaho)
Total steelhead 268,730 (of which 97,782 were wild steelhead)
Total pink salmon 55
Grand total= 2,272,441 (source Fish Passage Center)
So last year's so-called record run was 13,727,559 fish short of those historical salmon/steelhead runs on the Columbia/Snake. Well, if you repeat a lie long enough people will start to believe it. I say there is nothing wrong with demanding your public officials speak the truth and last year's run wasn't a record by any sense of the imagination. It would behoove our public officials to stop lying about these runs and start speaking the truth. They can begin by telling you in clear language every year the total salmon and steelhead cost of mitigating for the hydropower system (up to $800 million in 2014). They can tell you clearly each year how many of the returning fish were wild and how many were hatchery (typically 75-80 percent are hatchery fish). They can tell you how many hatchery smolts were dumped into the Columbia/Snake Basin each year (the number is north of 141 million), as well as how many eggs were placed in the basin. And they should tell you the best estimates for wild smolt production in the basin. This information should be readily available at all times. The costs and what we are getting in return for the costs should be available right along side the actual numbers of fish (the lower Snake dams cost $269 million per year, produce $200 million in electricity, support transport of $1.5 billion in goods, lose $1.4 billion annually in lost recreation revenue due to loss of river, will cost more than $700 million to refurbish the 24 turbines in use on the four dams in the next few years, cost about $10 million to dredge each year through 2074 or $580 million for sand removal and kill tens of millions of wild and hatchery fish annually).
They should inform you that we have a power surplus in the Pacific Northwest and that removing the four lower Snake River dams would cost each electric customer about a dollar more per month. They should tell you those lower Snake River dams produce less than 3 percent of the power in the Pacific Northwest and that due to the large surplus of power, removing those dams would not create a power deficiency, and a double-digit surplus in the region would still exist. They should tell you that a third of the BPA power bill is paying for mitigation. You should know that those mitigation costs would be lowered significantly with the removal of the four lower Snake River dams.
They should tell you that shipping on the lower Snake is so insignificant that for several years the Corps of Engineers has classified the lower Snake as a "waterway of negligible use." They should point out that the dams cost more to maintain than the benefit they provide, in other words we continue to pay for or subsidize the dams, they do not pay for themselves and that doesn't include the mitigation costs they incur. They should point out that studies have been done that say we are losing $1.4 billion a year in lost recreation revenue on the lower Snake due to the fact that they are now seldom used reservoirs instead of a running river. It is perfectly fine by this blog if those public officials want to also highlight the other devastating threats to wild salmonids, such as habitat degradation from mining, logging, irrigation and channelization and development, hatchery production, over-harvest, and pollution provided they also honestly admit to the damage caused by the hydrosystem. They should do proper economic analysis pitting the cost of maintaining the dams and mitigation versus other alternatives that might be more fish friendly. They should stop giving misleading information about smolt survival through the hydrosystem. They should stop using the plight of wild salmonids to gain money to build more hatcheries that have been proven over and over again to be one of the main threats to wild salmonid survival. They should begin to use the plight of wild salmonids to gain money to be put toward actual programs that will actually aid in wild salmonid recovery only. All of these things should be done and the information readily available to everyone so that everyone can make an informed decision. Should all the actual information be made readily available and the public has an honest debate on the subject, then should we choose to remove the dams or keep them will be a legitimate decision, the latter would, of course, sadden me.
The wealth of sources that speak to the 10-16 million wild salmonids in annual Columbia/Snake basin runs before we started screwing everything up is incredibly vast but here's a quote from an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife report from 2008 that does a pretty good job of summing things up.
"Historically, an estimated 10-16 million adult salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia River Basin annually. These fish migrated to spawning areas nearly 1,200 miles up the Columbia River to Lake Windermere, Canada and 600 miles up the Snake River near Twin Falls, Idaho. Access to the most productive spawning and rearing areas was blocked or flooded by dam construction beginning in the 1930s. Since that time, hydroelectric project operators were required to build and fund hatcheries to mitigate for lost salmon production. As more dams were built, wild populations of salmon and steelhead collapsed or disappeared entirely, and hatchery-raised fish comprised an increasing majority of most salmon and steelhead runs. Ironically, it was in 1938 after the completion of Bonneville Dam and the commencement of accurate fish counting, that intensive fishery management and run size accountability became possible. Since 1938, the number of returning salmon and steelhead, including jacks, has fluctuated from a low of 750,000 in 1995 to a high of 3.2 million in 2001. Hatchery-raised fish comprise approximately 75 percent of the present salmon and steelhead runs."
The following chart gives salmon/steelhead runs over past decade from Fish Passage Center crossing Bonneville Dam (includes all chinook adult and jack, coho adult and jack, steelhead, sockeye and pink salmon)
***I have included an extrapolated hatchery return number and wild/natural fish return number based on the 75 percent figure above on two of the years. Remember we used to get 10-16 million wild fish back every year. Also remember that wild fish are the only fish that count in the effort to one day delist the endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia/Snake River Basin. Before you jump to a conclusion that we are getting better, please note the actual wild fish numbers are 3.5 percent to 4 percent of historical runs and are nowhere near recovery. Also note that hatchery production continues to increase in the Pacific Northwest, which has no positive effect on wild/natural fish returns. It has been scientifically proven over and over again that hatchery steelhead, if allowed to spawn with wild steelhead, weaken the gene pool and threaten wild stocks of steelhead with extinction.
2015 = 2,272,441 (Hatchery fish 1,704,331 Wild/Natural fish 568,110 )
2014 = 2,574,322 (Hatchery fish 1,930,742 Wild/Natural fish 643,580)
2013 = 1,787,529
2012 = 1,544,930
2011 = 1,572,073
2010 = 1,833,429
2009 = 1,716,678
2008 = 1,304,999
2007 = 809,997
2006 = 1,012,965
10-year average since 2006 = 1,642,936 (10 percent of the historical runs, if you factor in lower Columbia and Willamette River Basin fish today's runs are still less than 20 percent of historical runs)
Selected years since 1938 when fish counts at Bonneville Dam began, jacks began being counted at the dams in 1980. (Again, this figure does not include fish that have spawning grounds downstream of Bonneville Dam)
2001 = 1,985,440
2000 = 957,513
1998 = 529,176
1995 = 463,342
1988 = 892,431
1978 = 570,057
1968 = 619,818
1958 = 673834
1948 = 695,241
1938 = 469,005