Northwest’s Newest White Wine: “That’s putting salmon over people!”
By Patrick McGann, SSJ Editor at Large
HABITAT: 2nd of a 4-Part Series
Just before Thanksgiving last fall, a high and muddy Skagit River did what Northwest rivers have been doing for eons, it cut into a high bank of the valley’s incredibly fertile alluvial soil on the outside of a bend. On top of that bank, though, people had built houses and outbuildings, and — who could possibly have predicted, right? — those buildings went from valuable waterfront one minute to nearly worthless cantilevered circus acts the next.
No one watching the video of the flood was immune to sympathizing with the owners of those homes and buildings. Since my first ride in a helicopter to fill sand bags on the Illinois River in 1973, followed by a parade of others there and the Mississippi since, I know how cruel river flooding can be; and I know also how cruel the insurance companies and the governments seem to be when they do their best to prevent people from rebuilding where their homes will be vulnerable to the next flood. And the next. And the one after that.
But mixed in with the predicament of these people was a common sentiment that always sticks in my throat. Homeowners and local officials interviewed by KING 5 News out of Seattle pointed to the intentional neglect of a rock levee upstream from Lyman on the Skagit to counter channelization and allow natural stream flow and restore salmon habitat. They were angry and said they felt that salmon were valued more than their homes.
Three hundred and fifty miles to the south, in the small town of Detroit, Oregon, you can hear the same thing. The US Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to draw down Detroit Dam to install devices to improve water temperatures and fish passage into the upper South Fork of the Santiam River. One might hope they will get this one right and not shoot the patient on the operating table like they did on the Deschutes at Pelton, but that’s a different story. (Dynamite might be the kindest solution.)
Detroit will be drawn down more than a year and possibly not more than two. Because Detroit is a tourist town dependent on Detroit Lake, which has very good fishing for trout and green fish, the improvements will be economically devastating for the small businesses and their employees. That’s real and it’s terrible. I have no truck with those folks. But … and yes, of course, they’re blaming salmon and steelhead.
And that’s what extinction sounds like. From establishing in-stream water rights to blocking oil terminals to stopping vast surface mining projects on beaches, to limiting urban sprawl, to levying taxes to rebuild culverts for fish passage right down to trying to talk sense into people trying to put houses on the soft lips of outside bends of rivers: “That’s putting salmon over people.”
On behalf of all the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on salmon and steelhead to make a living — the boat builders, gas pumpers, guides, biologists, charters, netters, processors, fish and game wardens, outdoor writers, boat dealers, welders, clothing makers, mechanics, tackle manufacturers, bait & tackle shop owners, rod builders, anchor makers, and on and on and on and the businesses they in turn support — sorry, that’s bullshit.
If anybody is putting anything over anyone it is those putting their livelihoods over those of us who depend on salmon for ours.
The good news is that billions are being spent rebuilding salmon habitat across the Northwest. The bad news is that trillions are being spent destroying it.
The loss and damage of salmon habitat, the second of the Four H problems posing an existential threat to Pacific salmon (with hydro, harvest and hatcheries) is a social problem.
Recently, a court case from the Nooksack River valley in Washington state decided by the State Supreme Court spelled out in stark terms the nature of that problem.
Whatcom County issued a well permit in the Nooksack bottoms. They were sued by an environmental group, Futurewise, which was supported by Puget Sound Tribes and other environmental groups. For brevity’s sake, the suit contended that Whatcom County was over allocating valley bottom ground water beyond what is necessary to maintain minimum stream flows in the Nooksack.
The Nooksack has two salmon runs in dire straits: Chinook and sockeye. The river has been dammed, diked and straightened and there is precious little spawning habitat left. The dam, owned by the City of Bellingham, is in the crosshairs for removal but that’s years off and the lawsuit said, ‘Times up.’
The ruling slammed on the brakes to new well drilling permits statewide which has happened before. Property rights activists and the real estate industry burst into flames and shrieking fits. (Understandable.)
This caused a standoff in the Washington Legislature over a basic issue: Is there a limit to how many residential wells can be drilled and have we reached it?
And that fundamental question is at the heart of all of our habitat problems going forward. We’re seeing that on the Sacramento, Klamath, on the North and South Santiams in Oregon, just about everywhere salmon swim, or try to. It all sounds the same, “That’s putting salmon over people!” Translated, that means, “Salmon are expendable.”
When will it stop? In the minds of many, never. And that will mean extinction.
Republicans in the Washington legislature held the state budget bill hostage until an agreement “fixing” Hirst could be hammered out. One was. It is slower death for salmon. The Democrats couldn’t come out and say the unthinkable.
No, not that new wells can’t be allowed. They’re happy to say that. But rather, what they can’t say is that water rights for future residential construction should come from the top of the water rights food chain, the water used for irrigation by crop farmers and dairy farmers, not the bottom, the water needed for salmon restoration.
It would seem that way, wouldn’t it, that if you take land out of ag production then the water rights that were used to irrigate that land should stay with the land that is now going to have a house with showers, toilets, washing machines, a lawn, a garden and a swimming pool. But no. A new water right has been created. But no new water was created. How long can we keep doing this? In the minds of many, forever.
And how long must these strident voices for property rights keep coming back on the people who derive their living from salmon, and the meager in-stream water rights they possess, instead of the top tier water users, you know, the ones selling the land where the new wells want to be drilled? In their minds, always.
Instead of saying that salmon are not expendable, the Washington state democrats, outside of the greenie meanies, said that the state will pretend salmonids are not expendable but they’re still going to pressure salmon by caving in to new wells — just poking ‘em and prodding ‘em a bit — and leave the powerful Whatcom County farmers alone.
That’s not environmental science. It is not even economics. It’s plain ol’ jaw-jaw political extortion. Republicans want to destroy salmon. Democrats would like to delay the Republican efforts. Real estate profits and a sick environment over salmon profits and a healthy environment.
And the big question, are we really going to allow salmon to go extinct, is answered with a mumble and a shrug. We’re going to solve this problem, they promise, just not today. Tick, tick, tick.
This is going on in one form or another almost constantly everywhere salmon and steelhead can swim.
It is too easy to get depressed to the point of inaction when you think about how massive and pervasive the habitat problem really is. So, let’s deal with that right now before jauntily marching off to survey the apocalyptic landscape. We are going to solve this problem. We are going to reach a state where salmon populations are stable and growing.
The solution(s) will come about in Sacramento, Salem, Olympia, Victoria and Juneau before we see it in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa. I am not talking about the state legislatures. I am rather talking about the state supreme courts. And the national supreme courts. I truly believe legislation will come, but it will come only after the courts have done many more times what they’ve done on the Columbia River and in water allocation disputes such as Hirst.
The legislatures just aren’t equipped to deal with a real crisis like this. They simply cannot stand in the way of the stampede to destroy these fish runs. Courts can. And here’s why.
Northwest Native Americans have a valid claim that salmon are vital to their culture, their identity and sense of being. I am not native, not even to the Northwest. I’m an American mutt. But I make the same claim. And it’s been that way for me since the first time I saw a salmon swimming on black and white TV back in the ‘60s, over 2,000 miles from the nearest salmon. And for what it’s worth to the people who are literally making life difficult for salmon, that’s not worth much. Or anything at all.
They see the Iron Eyes Cody Keep America Beautiful thing. They stop spraying their trees and sending overspray clouds of chlorpyrifos pesticides wafting out over the rivers just long enough to wipe a tear of their own — what a shame, they say — and they go right back to spraying. That’s how legislation works. Beat a drum. Change a comma to a semi-colon. Hold a presser. Generate a headline. Pronounce your win-win. Declare Washington apples über apples. Wouldn’t want to put salmon over people, right? (Chlorophyrifos are a widely used pesticide in fruit growing. They were found to be causing harm in Pacific salmon in a new 3,700 page report released late last December by NMFS despite protests by the Trump administration. So what we’ve suspected, as in any damn fool has known, for the last 40 years is apparently true.)
Developers and property rights groups are agricultural conglomerates and power companies start out by saying that salmon are important to them. There is always, always — a ‘but,’ as in “Salmon are important to us, but…” No one believes that. And now that they’re out about it and crying, “That’s putting salmon above people!” They’re not fooling anybody. And more and more they’re not even trying to. Salmon extinction to them? Meh.
But while they may not understand and respect the spiritual, cultural, economic, environmental and human aspects of salmon and steelhead, there is one thing they do understand and respect: A little concept called ‘actual damages.’
If you look at habitat destruction as a premeditated aggravated property crime with living breathing human victims and not an unfortunate accident, just a sad side effect of the American Dream, it’s easy to see where this all belongs: in court with the other criminal cases.
When the season shuts down and we can’t go out and use the boat whose payments are, like, divorce sized, like, college tuition sized, bigger than our house mortgage, and that in turn sets off a whole chain of unfortunate events in a large industry all up and down the West Coast and stretching all the way to Springfield, Missouri and Columbia, South Carolina and beyond, it is because someone has made some money. A farm got carved up. A big ass 4,500 square foot spec home went up. A levee set back proposed by the state greenies got beaten back by the county commission.
And this happened because a successful couple always dreamed of a big house in the country on 10 acres with Saturdays spent aboard a purring John Deere on a sea of fescue and blue grass pristinely devoid of broad leaf weeds, kept green all summer with computer controlled pop-ups spraying cold clean water, the right to which sprang up out of nowhere like loaves and fishes that just go on and on and on. Slick as a gun and a ski mask. Somebody got something. Somebody had something taken away. And for this we have lawyers.
And lawyers cost money. And that’s why we join groups like the Coastal Conservation Association (joincca.org/about), Puget Sound Anglers (pugetsoundanglers.org), Northwest Steelheaders (nwsteelheaders.org) and why we support businesses who belong to the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (nsiafishing.org) and Northwest Marine Trade Association (nmta.net/home.asp)
Simply put, these guys are bad asses. They won’t give up. And neither should you. These guys are going to win more than they lose and if you’re with them, so are you.
I wish it were otherwise, that people could see sense and would cooperate to find solutions, but they won’t. The elected officials are probably more reasonable than they seem, but once the ideological whack jobs get cranked up, the crazy drowns out any chance of cooperation. So hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to court we go. And we will win there and not just on the back of the ESA, but also on property rights themselves.
Salmon and steelhead are extremely resilient. That resiliency can be turned on its head though. The reason salmon are tough is because of their complicated lifecycle and genetic diversity.
They are vulnerable to degradations in the upper stretches of rivers part of the year. They are vulnerable to damage — pollution, temperature, passage, and predation — in the middle stretches as they migrant downstream as smolts. Then they rear in the estuaries and mosey out to the inshore saltwater habitats. From there, they move into the open ocean and become feeding machines and turning back they face the whole gauntlet all over again. But they are only in each situation for part of their lifespan. A small problem, like shell weakness in copepods, that hits at a critical time of the year when they are the only food source available to juvenile Chinook and coho, can be devastating.
And that’s why contemplating habitat threats to salmon can be pretty depressing. Fortunately, there are four scientifically-minded states and one Canadian province and two federal governments, plus lots of advocacy industry and conservation groups, working hard on this problem. Currently, the US government is being led away from its responsibility to restore salmon, but that’s temporary and it will not be fully successful.
So with that in mind, let’s look at these threats and what should be done about them.
The Dirty Laundry List, 10 Threats Ranked
10. Salmon Farming
Theoretically, salmon farming is a good alternative to the commercial harvest of wild salmon. In the real world, it has gone from horror to fiasco. Salmon farms are a very real threat of parasites and diseases in salmon and a source of pollution from their feed which farmers can’t seem to rid of PCB contamination. These threats are well known, but Washington and British Columbia allow them because the risk is relatively isolated to the location of the farm and potentially, these threats can be addressed. We’re still waiting.
And then… there is the threat of escape. Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz canceled Cooke Aquaculture’s lease at Cypress Island in the San Juans, citing multiple violations of the terms of its lease. Basically, Cooke’s operation in the San Juans was a cluster-fudget. Anchor lines extending out into channels, mussels allowed to attach, grow and degrade the net pen structure, disrepair and a general lack of attention that led to the escape of hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon. Some of those fish were discovered clear down in California. The state legislature is currently considering proposals ranging from an immediate shut down of the industry to a gradual phase out. Currently there is a moratorium on all new net pens.
California, Oregon and Alaska currently ban salmon farming in saltwater. British Columbia allows it and there are net pens all over the place in B.C. Cooke is a Canadian company.
Why is salmon farming rated the least dangerous of the 10? Because it’s doomed. It can and will be done away with by the stroke of a pen.
SOLUTION: Just ban it. Obviously saltwater fish farms are just too difficult to operate safely. They’ve been at this for decades. Can’t do it. Aquaculture needs to move inland and build big swimming pools if they want to keep at it. Fat chance.
This is a big threat and an old one. It’s at No. 9 because a great deal of progress is being made. Better shoreline management growth plans in California, Oregon and Washington are holding the line on new habitat destruction, and as in the opening of this article, states are able to make progress in many cases by simply not maintaining current levees. The problem is that in built up areas, the streams are already in terrible shape. The entire Sacramento River, for example, is one continuous stretch of back yards mowed right to the water’s edge and every homeowner it seems has installed some kind of riprap.
It’s much easier to restore riparian vegetation, ironically enough, in the industrial lower brackish stretches of rivers because it is politically easier to take out a seaway on a factory than on a million dollar waterfront home.
The challenge is the threat that natural rivers pose to residences. People really, really want to live right on the river and they really, really refuse to accept the consequence of doing so. The regulatory agencies controlling that is usually the county which is funded by property taxes and waterfront residences are usually taxed the highest.
SOLUTION: The states have to get control of this. And yes, it will be extremely unpopular. But levees have to be set back or removed and flood plain construction as well as flood recovery has to be regulated just like it is in the Midwest.
8. Obstacles to Passage
Dams are the obvious problem. We dealt with that in Hydro, last issue, so other than to say that most dams don’t generate electricity and every one of them is an obstacle to passage, we’ll skip it except to say that it is possible with properly operated mixing towers and ladders, maybe fish runs can be restored without breeching all or most of the dams. We’ll see. It doesn’t look promising.
Culverts are a big problem because there are so many of them. However, due to recent court actions, culverts are being replaced all up and down the coast. This is going to take a long time if it is not included in a big infrastructure project, if there ever is one.
Tide gates are another issue. In order to maximize tillable soil in the fertile bottoms surrounding estuaries coast wide and all over Puget Sound counties, drainage districts and individual landowners have installed tide gates on ditches and sloughs that allow fresh water to drain out but keep tides from encroaching. Besides the drainage of wetlands that destroys rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, the old style tide gates prevent fish from utilizing the sloughs themselves.
SOLUTION: Fix culverts and modify all old style flap gates with float systems to remain open at specific water levels on both sides. Continue dam modification and breech if they don’t work or can’t be done.
Herring, anchovies and other small baitfish are not threatened off California, Oregon and Washington, but nor are they as abundant as they need to be, either. The same can be said for pollock, hake and Pacific cod, which are numerous offshore and to the north, but are of low populations inside the Salish Sea and Puget Sound. This is an indirect problem mostly. Predators that normally focus on pollock, cod and hake for example, like Orcas, seals and sea lions turn to faster and harder-to-catch salmon when there aren’t enough pollock to eat.
SOLUTION: Tighter restrictions on shoreline development to protect spawning eel grass. There isn’t one single threat to pollack, hake and Pacific cod. They are threatened by ecosystem wide problems, particularly water quality issues (and a lack of knowledge about them) and denuding of bottom structure (deep vegetation and reefs) by bottom trawl nets in the 1970s, which could be improved by deep water restoration efforts in Hood Canal particularly.
6. Loss of Shoreline Vegetation
Humans like to clean things up. Salmon like it messy. The states are getting pretty good at requiring buffer zones of timber along spawning rivers to prevent siltation of spawning gravel. But for the most part that’s occurring on public land and voluntarily on timber company land. Other private land, not so much. In some areas, those buffer zones are inadequate and logging activities beyond them still cause siltation and will probably need some sort of catch basin structure if logging going is going to continue at the same pace it currently is, which will probably be the case despite intensive efforts by the tribes.
Salmon and steelhead need dead and decaying woody structure in the upper reaches and tributaries for cover and water quality. There is currently a great deal of experimentation with this all over the Northwest. Some of it just doesn’t work. The loose log jams originally placed in the Cowlitz, for example, were as much a menace as a help. But anchoring techniques developed in the Methow and Skagit rivers have shown some real promise.
Just as important is rearing habitat, off channels, beaver ponds, sloughs, swamps that lie along the rivers. That’s where down migrating smolts hide from predators and feed. But the insatiable hunger for waterfront homes is taking it out. You can see that very plainly in the mansionettes being built along the Columbia River on lots carved out of orchards. On the good side, they provide a good buffer between the river and carcinogenic pesticides. In Puget Sound the Washington Department of Ecology calculates that 80 percent of historic estuary habitat has been lost. It’s almost a total loss on San Francisco Bay. Every small bay along the Oregon coast is the same, a growing infestation of an invasive species, babyboomerus retirus.
SOLUTION: Conservation easements and a new Conservation Reserve Program for shorelines and wetlands protections for residential properties. It is not really necessary to ban waterfront residential construction, just regulate it to keep people from destroying it in the name of DIY TV landscaping sensibilities.
This is directly related to climate change (No. 1, below). Climate change is responsible for lower average snow packs in the coastal mountain ranges. There is less water. The way we have allocated water rights, however, almost always results in over-allocation in low water years.
Water levels in spawning streams is critical to salmon and steelhead but not always as critical at some times as others. That’s what property rights activists — the folks who have trouble with in-stream water rights for salmon and steelhead — have a hard time with. Well, it’s one among many things they have a hard time with. There is plenty of water, they’ll say, if you count the times when it’s not particularly useful, like a high spring flood.
There is, therefore, a finite amount of water in the rivers and in the riparian shallow aquifers. Some people have huge water rights to irrigate thousands of acres of hay for their dairy cattle. And the courts have ruled consistently that water levels cannot be lowered below what is necessary to sustain salmon and steelhead. And now people building houses want to drill more wells that draw on that same water. Where is that water going to come from?
SOLUTION: Inviolate in-stream water right for anadromous fish species, require all new riparian/shallow wells to draw water rights from existing users. Statewide adjudication of water rights is the only thing that is going to solve this problem. And the last place that is going to happen is in the state legislatures. Only the courts can solve this, alas. Idaho is the only state that’s finished theirs.
4. Agricultural Runoff
This is such a no-brainer. We take a desert (or a riparian swamp), clear it right down to the water line of a river or slough, fertilize it with chemicals, water it with river water collected behind a dam, load it up with pesticides, drain those chemicals back into the rivers, harvest clean for winter/spring erosion, repeat annually, shriek incessantly that any attempt to correct or regulate this aberration is a threat to the American Way.
There are very few rivers in California, Oregon and Washington where this is not a problem. We are in chemical war with bugs and soil nutrient depletion and it is killing our fish, not to mention losing the war with the bugs and the nitrogen.
SOLUTION: Tighter restrictions on farm chemicals, stronger incentives for organic farming or at least sustainable farming practices, greater use of drainage ponds on large riparian orchards. They’re literally washing their chemicals right back into the rivers. Modern factory farming is no cleaner or friendlier than a World War II munitions plant. It is insane to allow such a widespread industry to pollute like they are.
Not much more needs to be said about this. This is a serious problem subject to a lot of federal foot dragging. I’m not a fan of the present administration, but in its zeal for chaos and disruptive mayhem, perhaps it can send some the way of California sea lions. For some reason, these Republican politicians think that sea lion predation is a good reason not to do anything about any other problem, but they do like killing things, so here, have at ‘em, boys!
Sea lions (and to some extent seals) and fish eating birds are causing devastating losses to salmon and steelhead everywhere they exist. This has been exhaustively documented. The predator populations are abundant. And the most important thing is that they are intelligent and lethal persecution teaches them to go elsewhere for food. You don’t have to kill them all. Just some. But you have to kill them or they will flip their middle flipper at you.
And the other thing is to take some time off and whack some bass, walleye or channel cats. Take them home and eat them. Or something.
SOLUTION: Amend the Marine Mammal Protect Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Now. Give states control as long as California sea lions are not listed. Then persecute them by lethal means. This is a big but not a particularly complicated problem.
2. Non-point urban runoff
Non-point urban runoff pollution has two culprits: automobiles, lawns and impermeable surfaces.
Next to climate change, this is the biggest, widest ranging, fastest growing and most immediate threat to salmon and steelhead. Everybody wants to live on the West Coast. And everybody wants to drive a car. Cars are poisonous, almost everything about them down to the brake and tire dust. A couple of trucks, no problem. A couple hundred thousand, big problem. They drip and dust impermeable surfaces. It rains and that washes, in most cases, directly off into streams and saltwater.
There is no question that automobile pollution, all the fuels, fluids and sloughing off of materials, is immediately toxic to fish. Coho in particular seem to be particularly vulnerable, with ample documentation of adult spawners being found dead before being able to reproduce in close proximity to storm water drains.
The other problem is lawns. And the lack of them. Runoff from lawns treated with weed and feed or herbicides is the primary cause of water pollution in Puget Sound. Ag runoff is the major case of water pollution in non-urban bays, but non-point is catching up.
Impermeable surfaces solve the problem of lawn chemical pollution but they increase the problem of runoff that eventually cleanses the roads of toxins and deposits it in the water.
SOLUTION: Universal treatment of urban and suburban storm water. Reduction of impervious surfaces. Use of drainage basins. All of this is incredibly expensive and there is very little chance cities and suburbs will levy those taxes on themselves. Alas, the courts are going to have to do it. And it will take an ESA-listing disaster to make that happen. Ugh.
1. Climate Change
Nothing poses a bigger threat to salmon and steelhead than the steady increase in ocean temperatures. Almost every other habitat problem is somehow related and made worse by it. It’s simple. Salmonids are highly sensitive to water temperature from egg to spawn. Ocean acidification, temperature, dams, predation, drought, concentration of toxins on impervious surfaces, extreme ocean temperature events, the reaction of forestry and agriculture industries to the changing conditions … it is all conspiring to rid us of these fish.
The science is overwhelming, and the politics are insane. The Trump administration is literally doing exactly the worst things that can be done by calling on the restoration of coal and carbon-based energy and sabotaging the move to clean, sustainable energy. This is a direct assault on salmon and steelhead resources. Period.
There is no counter argument.
Climate change is not controversial. Denial of it is. There simply is no room for denial of climate change in the salmon and steelhead community. It is real. Salmon and steelhead are particularly susceptible. And it is killing our industry.
SOLUTION: Don’t vote for climate change deniers. Support carbon reduction initiatives. It’s time to get radical about it. If you don’t think climate change is real and anthropomorphic, sell your rods and take up scrap booking. Please.
In some of the conversations I had with people about this topic, one attitude I ran into was a kind of exasperated sense of resignation about population growth. I get it. I remember Tillamook when you had to wait for the elk to cross the road to get through town. I’m old, but I’m not that old.
Back in 1985 over three days I floated a long stretch of the Sacramento River fishing for rainbows (and beer). I was shocked at the number of houses on normal urban sized lots side by side on the river banks. I remember thinking what a terrible challenge that must be for salmon managers. And I remember hoping I’d never see that on my favorite north Oregon coast rivers. Well, we’re there.
That is not going to go away. So we have a choice. We can either just kind of lay back and try a little harder to catch as many fish as we can until they’re all gone and do the gomer sigh: oh, well, or we can get up on our hind legs and do something.
I for one am no longer ashamed to call myself an environmentalist and a radical one at that. This is the two minute drill, guys. We’re having less and less time between meltdowns. More and more ‘unusual’ calamities until they’re so not so unusual anymore. I don’t want to be one of the last two people fighting over the last fish.
It’s hard for me not to get frustrated with people who are pretty much intentionally destroying salmon, and we needn’t be, but we are going to have to grow some hair and say, “No, sorry, Charlene, you can’t make $150,000 building a 5,000 square foot castle on that river bank for some Microsoft retiree. Go sell something up on that hill. Do a tear down. Build something in town. Get a job.”
And we are going to have to steel ourselves when that fancy real estate lady rolls down that Lexus window, shakes her fist and shouts, “That’s putting salmon over people!”
You know, just smile and wave.