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Beyond the 'spill' — finding the next step for Northwest salmon and people
Spring brings hope to Northwest salmon, first in the form of spill and then in the possibility of a new, lawful recovery plan, writes Port Angeles fisherman Ron Richards.
Special to The Times
SPRING brings welcome changes in Washington state. Temperatures slowly rise. The clouds eventually give way to the sun. The most eager among us have ordered more seeds than our gardens — or busy schedules — can support. And soon, a first trickle of salmon will swim into our coastal waters — stirring fishermen to clean boats and gather gear in anticipation of the coming season.
In addition — thanks to the dogged efforts of fishermen, tribal people, conservationists and the state of Oregon — we will also enjoy year No. 7 "spilling" water over federal dams in the Columbia Basin. By allowing water over dams during their migration, this new spring rite benefits young salmon and steelhead as they navigate to the ocean from the river gravels where they were born.
Running from April to August, spill is probably the most valuable achievement so far in our long battle to protect and restore healthy, self-sustaining salmon populations. Spill mimics a more natural river by moving young fish downstream quickly and steering more of them past deadly turbines. It means more fish arrive safely at the saltwater, and that translates into more adults returning to these rivers in subsequent years — sustaining fisheries and benefiting our communities and economy.
Spill, however, has not come without a fight. Despite the benefits to our iconic fish, Bonneville Power Administration and many utilities still oppose it. As they see it, spilled water costs them money — it doesn't turn turbines or produce electricity. For this reason, it remained elusive for many years — an oft-broken promise by the federal agencies that operate the dams.
But in 2006, when it invalidated another salmon plan, the U.S. District Court in Portland ordered the agencies to spill water during the salmon migration to improve survival through the dams and reservoirs.
Despite opposition by power interests, our coalition of conservationists, tribes, Oregon officials and fishermen has secured, for now at least, an annual spill program. We hope to celebrate this spring tradition for years to come.
Spill is a big deal. It has increased the survival of out-migrating fish by as much as 95 percent. This has helped stabilize many declining populations and delivered benefits to fishermen like me by protecting and creating jobs in the salmon economy.
Spill, however, will not be enough to restore healthy salmon stocks. The court, in its ruling last August, emphasized that considerably more will be needed; fishermen agree.
The next step — as ordered by the court — is a new, lawful plan. But rather than rely on the same agencies that only have delivered legally insufficient plans since 1995, we need a new approach. It's time to bring together affected stakeholders — fishermen, farmers, utilities, ratepayers and others — to work with each other to craft a lawful, science-based plan that meets the needs of both Northwest salmon and Northwest people.
Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and other elected officials should work with the national administration to make this happen.
Similar efforts have succeeded elsewhere. On the Elwha and White Salmon rivers, for example, stakeholders crafted plans to restore rivers and salmon, create jobs and benefit local economies. On California's San Joaquin River, a recent agreement among farmers, cities, fishermen and conservationists ended two decades of litigation, re-watered 40 miles of dry riverbed and is returning salmon to the river for the first time since the 1940s.
Despite 20 years of litigation, we have 13 stocks of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead at risk. Fishing communities are struggling, and the uncertainty — not knowing what's ahead — is bad for business everywhere.
It's time for a new approach. Bringing stakeholders together to work with each other and the relevant agencies and tribes to solve this problem is the right next step for salmon and our economy.
Commercial salmon fisherman Ron Richards lives with his wife Nina in Port Angeles. He is gearing up now for the fishing season off the Washington coast and in Southeast Alaska this spring and summer.