Roosevelt’s Miracle in the Desert
The effects dams have on our salmon, steelhead runs
By Patrick McGann, SSJ Editor at Large
HYDRO: 1st of a 4-Part Series
“Strange as it may sound, lawsuits brought by anti-dam activists are forcing us to do things at the dams that don’t help the fish, and may hurt them. This constant stream of litigation, often based on faulty science, threatens not only fish, but local people and economies that benefit in multiple ways from hydropower.”
That dish of steaming horse apples was served up last November in an op-ed in the Tri-City Herald by Jack Heffling, President of the United Power Trades Organization, a dam union.
Let’s be clear: dam operators haven’t done a damn thing to help fish or the rivers, ever, that the courts haven’t forced them to do. And on top of that, getting them to follow judicial decrees has been like trying to give a bobcat a cold bath.
I hope this isn’t a revelation, but the Save Our Dams people don’t care about fish or the salmon/steelhead community, will never care about what we see as vital, will never recognize our role in the economy and will do everything we let them do to drive salmon and steelhead to extinction. Period. That, and the world is round.
If Keffling, the Corps of Engineers, the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, the county Public Utility Districts that operate hydropower dams, groups like RiverPartners, the Property Rights coalitions, irrigator associations or the Farm Bureaus think the fishing community is going to stop suing them, they’re bug-eyed crazy. Aggressive legal action is the only thing standing between those greedy bastards and an environmental and economic catastrophe. Quit suing? Fat chance.
What prodded Keffling to pen this screed was a bill introduced this last fall in the U.S. House requiring Congressional approval of any plan to breach the four dams on the lower Snake River. That’s right, give Georgia and Connecticut veto power over salmon. It would also overturn U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon’s recent order to increase spills on the Columbia and Snake rivers. And it would halt Simon’s order to redo and beef up the Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion which Simon found did not do enough to rebuild endangered salmon and steelhead runs.
The reason Simon 86’ed the BiOp was because it was wishful thinking taken to a comedic level. In a nutshell, NOAA fisheries said that aggressive spills, aggressive dissolved nitrogen testing and sober consideration of breaching the four lower Snake dams weren’t necessary, that miraculous recovery of salmon could be achieved with some minor tweaks. We all know what recovery is. It’s a 40 percent increase in downstream smolt survival on top of progress in harvest, habitat and hatcheries. Does anyone know quantifiably what breaching the dams will do? NOAA fisheries says no. Simon says, find out.
There are lots of people who don’t want anyone to know how salmon will respond to breaching. That’s why this bill was introduced.
It is kind of a high-school-student-council piece of legislation in that it tangles itself fatally in the Endangered Species Act and pokes a legislative thumb into the eye of the judicial branch’s bailiwick of interpretation. But then, the bar is so low anymore, that’s not a big deal, right? These days we’re scratching out laws on burger wrappers with fat pencils and stubby crayons.
The bill was introduced by Republican representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-5) of Kettle Falls and Dan Newhouse (WA-4) of Sunnyside. Joining as co-sponsors were Republicans Jaime Herrrera Beutler (WA-3) of Battleground, Greg Walden (OR-2) of The Dalles and Kurt Schrader (OR-5) of Oregon City. What? Schrader is a Democrat? Noooo … Democrats care about salmon people. Not a fish guy. He’s bi-partisan veneer. What they call in Alaska, a “purchased D.”
There are three reasons why McMorris-Rodgers and Newhouse are engaging in this theatre of the damned. One, they realize that breaching is probably the only answer to saving salmon. Two, the Simplots and Del Montes are getting nervous. And three, the cowboy-hatted real estate developers are wetting themselves over water restrictions.
Rep. McMorris-Rodgers is fond of saying that dams and salmon can co-exist. Salmon country has tried hard to make that true and we’re still willing to play it out. But let’s face it, we are close to finding out it is not true. It is time to start saying that agriculture and industry can co-exist with free-flowing rivers.
And that is the H in Hydropower, the first of the four horsemen of the salmonapocalypse.
ROLL ON, KLAMATH
I used to argue with fellow outdoor writers that there was no way we’d ever remove the eleven dams on the Columbia River. The four on the Snake River, maybe, but not Bonneville, not Rocky Reach, not McNary, not certainly Grand Coulee. Too much history. Too much money. The dams are no longer the “foundation of the Northwest economy” as the electricity users like to say, but they’re still no slouches, responsible at least for $27 billion in electricity and agriculture annually in the Northwest.
Billions have gravity. Billions allow you to watch other people starve. Billions lets you kick dirt on other cultures, ignore the passions and sacrifices of thousands, tear down whole histories. Disrespect billions at your own peril.
On October 17, 2016, US Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, submitted a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommending that the four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California be removed. They are scheduled to be torn down by 2020.
That’s huge. And awesome. But then Donald Trump was elected president and I thought for sure Interior and FERC would go back on its word like thousands of contractors working on Trump properties experienced. So far, the Trump administration is signaling that it is not going to upend the deal. We’ll see. We are not on firm ground anymore. There is still a lot of shrieking and howling in the upper Klamath Basin hay fields, the lair of the property rights movement. So I’ll believe those dams get breached when they’re breached and not before.
Every single one of the dams on salmon bearing streams in Washington, western Idaho, Oregon and California is a significant obstacle to salmon migration. Every one of them is a major contributing factor to the decline of salmon and steelhead. There is an undeniable correlation between the first major decline of salmon harvest (the best estimates of populations we have prior to the 1970s) in the Columbia and the construction of Bonneville Dam. Within five years of Bonneville’s completion Chinook numbers dropped to less than 20 percent of average runs and have never recovered.
Of the Four H’s (Hydro, Harvest, Habitat & Hatcheries) hydro, or just dams, really, as a major factor in salmon decline, is the least controversial, probably because it is the easiest to measure.
Dams are an obvious physical block to upstream migration. They increase water temperatures in the river by slowing down the flow making salmon vulnerable to parasites and predators, inundating natural shoreline habitat, and creating thermal blocks to migration of water that exceeds the maximum tolerated by salmon. They create a trap that crowds fish up against a barrier making them more vulnerable to sea lions and birds. The slow, warm water is good habitat for predator fish, some native, many introduced, like walleye and smallmouth bass. Reservoirs behind the dams have destroyed almost all main river spawning areas, a huge loss. Trapping the sediment behind the dams, the plume of the Columbia into the ocean has changed, degrading rearing habitat for smolts that make it that far. And most damaging, dams pose a very serious obstacle to downstream migration of smolts.
No one of any intellectual consequence denies any of this anymore. Lots of people, of course, do deny it, all of it, part of it, most of it, but they are mostly conspicuous nitwits. For example, in November, Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, Republican from Bonanza, Oregon, representing the Klamath basin, wrote to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke protesting the breaching of the Klamath River dams.
His inspired logic imparted to Zinke was that the Klamath dams should not be torn down to save salmon because the dams have prevented salmon from migrating beyond them for 50 years and none of those salmon are still alive. Holy crap! He noted that all children know this. Seriously. Plus sea lions! And Japanese! So therefore, there’s no problem. And … wolves! And … Feds!! And … Obama!!!
But once upon a time the opposition to even the most obvious damage done by dams was questioned and formidably so. With three or four pounds of paper, some $100 words and a big indecipherable bibliography, it was possible to contend that water flows uphill and salmon have wings. As H.L. Mencken famously said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” It wasn’t that hard to fool them, especially if they wanted to be fooled. (Never changes, does it?) And the “biostitutes” got paid a fortune to do it.
You know those windy white papers produced by the wild fish people that sound like the Center for Disease Control cranking a siren about Ebola? The technique was invented by the Darth Vader of salmon restoration, the Direct Service Industries (DSI’s). Those were energy intense businesses, like aluminum smelters, pulp mills, chemical plants, that bought electricity at wholesale rates. They could make all kinds of sweetheart deals with the Bonneville Power Administration, like agreeing to buy electricity when retail demand was low and curtailing their activity when retail demand was high, thus ensuring constant demand and lowering BPA costs.
Every time a state or federal biologist pointed out another way dams harmed salmon and steelhead, the BPA and DSIs countered it ferociously. Just to give you an idea of how hard they fought, anyone could go to any one of the dams and watch the birds feasting on salmon smolt ceviche created by grinding and exploding thousands of them in the turbines on their downstream passage, and every newspaper in the Northwest was still spouting the DSI line that turbine mortality had not been proved. Every step was a protracted battle.
ESA AND ENRON
And then the first petition to list Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act came in 1985 on the Sacramento River. Listings for Snake River sockeye followed. The DSI’s were not stupid. In fact, just the opposite. They could read a tea leaf. They knew the ESA was the only thing that could touch them. And they started throwing a lot of money around on top of a lot of money. It helped them. For a little while.
But when the salmon implosion of the mid-1990s hit, there was a confluence of the ESA, critically low salmon numbers, a recognition in Oregon and Washington and the federal government that salmon were not going to be allowed to be extirpated from the Columbia. And the rise of the Columbia tribes to the fight, led by the Yakamas, who marched into federal court like Christ come to cleanse the temple.
And just as that was happening a not-so-funny funny thing happened. From Texas of all places. George W. Bush had just been elected. The Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Back in 1996, giddy from the tech boom and final surrender of interventionist liberalism to the deregulatory zeal of Neo Liberalism and the Contract With (On?) America, California had tried to increase electricity supply and decrease prices by deregulation. That ol’ time conservative religion thundered from the pulpit that ridding yourselves of government regulation would yield unending loaves and fishes. For four years, not much happened.
If deregulators can ignore the reasons for the regulations in the first place, they certainly can ignore the unbroken string of regrettable results from their actions. They thought creating fungible speculative instruments to electricity, such as futures and other derivatives, would “work,” that is, lower prices and increase supply.
By the spring of 2000 electricity prices had doubled, doubled again and doubled once more and by the summer, rolling blackouts started in northern California. By March 2001 when the Republicans in Washington, D.C. were in full romp, 1.5 million customers were experiencing blackouts.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, right? How could this happen? It was almost as if somebody was doing this on purpose. That’s what was happening. Turns out the regulations were there for a reason. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and their thugs at Enron looked at California like coyotes seeing a field of free range chickens guarded by a hippie with a whistle.
Enron figured out that it could disrupt and then manipulate the deregulated California market and maybe the electrical grid of the entire west coast. They were right and that’s what they did. Their assault so disrupted California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho that we’re still feeling it today. An unintended consequence was that it took out the DSIs. Now energy intense industries must buy their power from their local utility like everyone else.
The former DSIs are not as powerful as they used to be. They’re represented by a group called the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities. They’re still quite active, still trying to squeeze every penny of private profit from these public projects, and they’re no friendlier to salmon and steelhead than they’ve ever been.
But the Northwest is less reliant on those heavy, dirty industries. Many of those factories aren’t here anymore. Many have moved to cheaper labor markets or countries that don’t mind poisoning themselves. The ones here now, like Alcoa, seem to realize that fighting a war of attrition for an objective you can never reach is bad business. What they need is predictability and stability. Trying to make salmon go away doesn’t get you that.
And this is happening just as solar, wind, tide and storage technology is getting up on plane and non-dam, hydrokinetic generation is on the horizon. Hydropower is still a necessity in the Northwest. It will be for quite some time. A decade? Absolutely. Two decades? Probably. Three? Maybe not.
We are not there yet but we are getting there. We may need hydropower from dams right now, but we do not need them to be as efficient as they had to be twenty years ago.
The PUDs need to get off their butts and build more solar and more wind and looking into hydrokinetics because they’re going to have to spill more and for longer periods. That is just a fact of life.
The salmon are still here and there is a clean economy and a durable culture surrounding them and it’s not going anywhere.
WHISKEY’S FOR DRINKING, WATER’S FOR FIGHTING
You too can be a big, bad ass cattle rancher with just as much cattle as hat with a couple hundred acres in Idaho, eastern Washington or eastern Oregon.
All you need is a grazing lease on land owned by the American taxpayer, seeded by outrageously expensive aircraft hired by the American taxpayer, your cattle protected from wolves, bears and thieves by wildlife managers and rangers paid for by the American taxpayer, kept in by fencing built by the generosity of American taxpayers, defended from fire by a pumper truck entrepreneur with houses on three continents paid for by the American taxpayer.
And then you get your hands on every acre of what was once prime wildlife habitat where American taxpayers could have been hunting that you can till, mow, rake and bail, plant it in alfalfa for winter feeding with hybrid seeds developed at universities funded by American taxpayers, and irrigate it with water pumped from a reservoir created by a dam built by bent over American taxpayers, sprayed out at night in a giant aluminum pivot irrigation system subsidized by American taxpayers, in amounts and at times determined by intricate data assembled in outer space at the expense of American taxpayers, and find yourself an accountant (educated by American taxpayers) to help you find a cornucopia of cash payments, insurance against poor decision making and tax breaks from generosity of the American taxpayers.
And then lend your ear to a Farm Bureau spokesman to continually remind you of your independence, necessity and moral superiority to everyone else, that you and this Soviet system of agriculture cannot possibly be replaced by, say, farmers in Illinois, Iowa or Indiana shanghaied themselves into the endless, mindless corn/ethanol boondoggle and contractual maze of pork factories owned by Chinese Communist. And then you vote and keep voting for a politician who promises to keep this gravy train rolling no matter who gets hurt and to protect this great nation from the evils of socialism and the corruption of hypocrisy.
The real reason the dams were built was to turn worthless deserts into Gardens of Eden. Or put more prosaically, to turn $100 acres into $4,000 acres at taxpayer expense. Electrical generation was only ever meant to subsidize the cost of water storage.
Imagine being able to buy land for pennies, knowing that a dam would be built to supply that dust and sand with enough water to make it worth a fortune. No wonder guys like Rufus Woods and James O’Sullivan in Wenatchee used the Great Depression to buttonhole Franklin Delano Roosevelt who himself was desperate for a miracle, even in the desert.
That’s water. Hydropower isn’t
THANK YOU, TRICKY DICK
In 1973 the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress. Richard Nixon was sworn in Jan. 20 to his second term. It didn’t matter really. Not on our natural heritage. There was widespread agreement on the importance of our fish and wildlife and natural resources between Republicans and Democrats. That was a hard year, 1973. The war. Watergate. Recession. The oil embargo. We turned a dark corner that year, but we still had it together enough to pass the Endangered Species Act.
In February, 1972, President Nixon called on Congress to pass a tougher law to prevent extinction. This is what he said:
“It has only been in recent years that efforts have been undertaken to list and protect those species of animals whose continued existence is in jeopardy. Starting with our national symbol, the bald eagle, we have expanded our concern over the extinction of these animals to include the present list of over 100. We have already found, however, that even the most recent act to protect endangered species, which dates only from 1969, simply does not provide the kind of management tools needed to act early enough to save a vanishing species.”
Seriously. That was a Republican, maybe the last—and if there are awards for irony, I’m going for it—the last honest Republican. It was a different world. Conservative meant conservative. To conserve. A conservationist was necessarily a conservative. Republicans were still trying to make America better. They had good ideas back then. They were pro-business but they weren’t so corrupt to say that beet sugar should thrive and boat building should wither, that cherries picked by imported Jamaicans should survive and custom rods wrapped by Oregonians and Washingtonians should die. Not so now. Not so in a very big way.
The Endangered Species Act passed the House initially by a vote of 390 to 12 and passed in its final version with just four no votes.
It passed the Senate unanimously. 100-0. Zip. The Endangered Species Act. When the hell has anything, so big so universally impactful, short of declarations of war, passed the U.S. Congress so conclusively? They didn’t know what they were passing? Oh, yes they did.
So … instream water rights. Yes, we’re skipping ahead.
“How can a stream have a water right? This would never have occurred to the pioneers, it is outlandish.” — Cindy Alia, lobbyist, Citizens Alliance for Property Rights.
Instream water rights are nothing new. The concept was adjudicated successfully by Missouri River bargemen, ferries and other boatmen in the 19th Century on navigable rivers to prevent property owners from diverting so much water they couldn’t float their boats and ply their trade. The courts have long given first rights to the first users of rivers even though they didn’t divert water. There is ample precedent in water rights law protecting the rights of people from others who offend under the guise of self-defense.
It’s true that the ESA is why lawsuits requiring spill, and other changes in dam operation, have been successful. And they will continue to be. Those suits will take something like warming water to a point where endangered salmon can’t survive and make the dams change their intakes to decrease the water temperatures in the river below the dam. True.
But the establishment of an instream water right to big rivers like the Columbia, Snake, Rogue, Umpqua, Klamath, Sacramento, American, etc. for the protection of salmon and steelhead is a bigger deal. Much bigger.
Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California have now all adopted, either through legislation or regulation based on the ESA, instream water rights for salmon and steelhead.
There are people in Idaho, Washington and Oregon who believe that every drop of rain that falls, every flake of snow, is owned, is private property. And the problem is that historic water rights law supports that perversion. But! Historic water rights law also supports the concept of first in time first in line.
Guess who’s first in time on the Columbia, the Skagit, the Green, the Snake, the Clearwater, the Deschutes, the Salmon, the Willamette, the Santiam, the Rogue, the Klamath, the Sacramento… uh, Indians?
Because there are treaties between the U.S. and the Indians that specifically memorialize the critical importance of salmon, there are instream water rights for salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act. I know, it’s complicated and I didn’t go to Harvard and my ‘law degree’ came in a box of Cracker Jacks. But there it is.
The Indians enforced this, specifically the Yakamas, but with backup from the Nez Perce, Warm Springs tribes, and—I’m sorry, even though I’ve covered local reservation politics, it’s so complicated and opaque I can’t give all the players credit—they saved our bacon. I don’t think they meant to save our bacon, just theirs, but incidentally they saved ours and the nontribal commercials, too. And not just on the Columbia, but everywhere salmon and steelhead swim. That’s a fact, jack.
What the Indians did was establish a water right, in some senses a property right, based on their treaty rights to the fish, that is a robust and durable defense against the irrigators, developers and PUDs and their big customers who are harming salmon and steelhead. (Giving the tribes total credit is not really fair though: the states of Oregon and Washington and angels like the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association supplied jackhammers, explosives and drums of elbow grease… Even the Feds, some of them, have been very helpful at times.)
The point, however, is that salmon and steelhead legally deserve their share of water. I sleep a little better in this age of ideological disruption and destruction knowing that.
It’s property. And the salmon community owns it. The Save Our Dams can’t attack that without undermining their own water rights. And it is that way because of the damage the dams have done and the push-back by the salmon and steelhead people. And it doesn’t stop there.
In October, 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled on a case, Whatcom County v. Hirst, that has extended the instream water right of salmon and steelhead to the aquifers that supply it.
Washington’s Growth Management Act forbids counties from permitting wells and water use from those wells that dewater rivers with instream water rights for fish. The court ruled that Whatcom County’s permitting process violated the GMA.
This is an issue along every salmon bearing stream where the valley bottom is of a percolating type of soil where the ground water level is the same as the height of the surface water. In other words, the water under the ground along the river is the same as the water in the river. Taking water from a shallow well in the river bottom, therefore, is the same as taking water from the river. With enough water withdrawals from river bottom wells, the river can be dewatered. And that’s the issue.
As this is being written, Republicans in the Washington legislature are threatening to hold up the 2018 budget—the state equivalent of a debt ceiling shut down—if “Hirst isn’t fixed.” Almost every newspaper in Washington has editorialized that Hirst has to be fixed. Gov. Inslee and the Democrats in the legislature basically agree, but they aren’t going to repeal the GMA. They can’t. See above.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. The Supreme Court noted that Hirst is just the latest in a long string of land use issues involving domestic wells.
I, myself, have experienced this in Okanogan County both out in the country with occasional restrictions and inside the town of Twisp where a complete moratorium on well drilling persists and residents are required to buy municipal water (from a common well) at a princely price. Let me tell you something, it sucks. Not being able to water your tomatoes is a problem, but not being able to sell your land because a well can’t be drilled on it is a crisis. Been there, too, on Studhorse Mountain out of Winthrop.
But…the reason you can’t drill that well isn’t because of the salmon. It’s because of the cherries and apples and grapes and hay along the Columbia. Or in the case of Whatcom County, the grass along the Nooksack River. Those are later rights. The salmon are a first right.
You’ll find that out if you go ahead and drill a well anyway someone will show up and red tag you. But they didn’t show up on their own. Somebody downstream dropped a dime on you. Someone who grows hay or apples and considers you a water thief. They never consider themselves to be a water thief.
But it’s really more complicated even that that. Of course. It’s water. In order to wrap your head around it, you need to know who is lighting the fire under the Republican legislators. And it is a hot one.
Every rural area in Washington and Oregon and in northern Idaho is experiencing a building boom and a frantic division of ag lands into five and ten acre ranchettes for retiring baby boomers who insist on building their own Shangri La instead of buying someone else’s. It is usually a second home. Some of that is on dammed rivers, some not, but it’s all part of the same problem.
The property rights folks are trying to paint this as a bunch of little old ladies unable to sell off a hunk of land to buy groceries. But what’s driving this is rural land developers carving up farm land (for which we’re saving the dams, right? And plopping down 5,000 square foot log houses. Big money. Big yards with a lot of grass to water).
This spans the H’s and I’ll get more into it when I get to habitat. But it is both a water (hydro) problem and a habitat problem. But it wouldn’t be occurring at all if the dams weren’t so destructive.
Nor would it be occurring if water rights weren’t over-allocated but they are.
Damming the Columbia was being seriously discussed going back at least to 1902. The Hoover administration was considering it, but the crash of 1929 put the brakes on spending (which was, of course, exactly the wrong response). Wenatchee businessmen Rufus Woods and James O’Sullivan were strong proponents and they seized on the Depression and the need for economic stimulus to convince President Roosevelt to advance the projects. And they were successful. And they made an absolute killing.
Many called the dams “Roosevelt’s Miracle in the Desert”. And for many it was definitely a miracle. The men who built the dams were lifted out of horrible circumstances. The small towns of eastern Washington and Oregon were electrified. And they rushed out and bought refrigerators and radios from people who made money selling them. Farmers were able to diversify their crops and weren’t dependent solely on dry land wheat. And before efficient interstate highways and freight trains, they were able to get those crops to markets worldwide inexpensively on barges.
Before Enron screwed up the west coast electricity markets, energy intense industries like aluminum smelters thrived with cheap, reliable power that made Portland, Tacoma and Seattle industrial giants during World War II. Boeing may not have happened here otherwise.
Now the heirs and assigns if those ranchers and farmers and orchardists, mostly very large international corporations now, prosper spectacularly from these extremely expensive public works projects. They hire many people, mostly temporary foreign workers. And they use the benefits of these public works to exploit other public resources. Quite a miracle, all right.
But it was no miracle for people whose lives revolve around salmon and steelhead. For us, the commercial fishermen, the tribes, the individual fishermen, the markets, the sporting goods stores, gear manufacturers, guides, charters, resorts, processors, marinas, boat builders, media, dealers … it was a prolonged nightmare of unrelenting crisis and conflict that continues today. Someone came along and stole our industry and gave it to someone else.
We want it back. And we know we’re going to have to take it.
And we know the people are going to try to stop us. Who? The Farm Bureaus. The various kooks at the property rights coalitions. The irrigators. The rural land developers pretending they’re fighting for some ideal of individual freedom or complaining that someone trying to save our heritage are putting fish over people. The people who get paid directly for operating the dams.
And frankly, the Republican Party and their elected officials in Washington, Oregon and Idaho who have clearly made their decision that salmon and steelhead are expendable. They are not fence sitting. They are not mincing words. If it comes down to the job of that corporate orchard manager or yours, they’re going with the orchard. You can’t do a lot about Del Monte or some union gorilla, but you can do something about those politicians. Start with you and your vote.