Lipstick on a Pig – Hydropower Impacts on Wild Fish

The representatives of the 4 H’s (Hydro, Harvest, Hatchery and Habitat) are working overtime to paint a pretty picture here in Oregon. Lately I’ve been seeing lots of TV ads from groups like the Associated Oregon Loggers, Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Northwest River Partners, and others. The commercials feature shots of lush, green forests, and crystal clear mountain streams filled with salmon and steelhead making their way upstream. (Must be buying stock footage from video shot in Alaska). They tout the benefits of the Oregon Forest Practices Rules, Clean Hydropower, Commercial Fishing and other “great” things that those industries provide.

The rules and regulations put into place in the 1970’s were great … for the 1970’s. It stopped the wholesale destruction of Oregon Forests and Farmland, the watersheds within, and the fish and wildlife that resided there. Those 40 year old policies did some good. It probably kept several anadromous fish runs from extinction. (See prior blog post here)


“Clean Hyro” is that latest label used by the Hydropower Industry.  In my mind, it’s just lipstick on a pig.  We’re talking about dams that were built as far back as 90 years ago!  Just how clean can that be. Sure, Hydro doesn’t produce toxic waste in vast quantities, so in that regard, it is clean. But it does have some serious, permanent, long term effects on a river system.   The most obvious of course is cutting off access to spawning grounds.  Grand Coulee Dam blocked 1,100 miles of natural spawning habitat for Chinook, Sockeye and Coho Salmon, Steelhead, and Lamprey Eels and flooded 21,000 acres of land.  It also opened the door for building dams elsewhere on the Columbia and Snake River systems without regard for native fish runs. Today it’s estimated that between 40 -60% of Columbia Basin spawning grounds are inaccessible to anadromous fish.

Somewhere along the way, the powers that be decided it might be a good idea to build fish ladders in the lower dams.  I would guess that it took a lot of screaming and shouting to make that possible, but it did happen.  Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, McNary, Priest Rapids, Wanapum, and a few others have some sort of fish passage.  Those enable adult fish to make it upstream.  After much trial and error, they did figure out how to entice returning salmon to take the right path and move past the concrete behemoths.  In one report I read, it said the fish ladder at Bonneville was projected to cost $650,000.  By the time they got it to work correctly, they’d spent around $7 million.

Hatcheries were the answer to the problem back then, and we haven’t moved very far away from that.  It got the hydro folks out of hot water with the commercial fisheries folks (the squeaky wheel back in those days).  It was a bait-and-switch tactic.  If you cut off natural spawning, you replace it with farmed fish. Pretty simple minded, you supplement what was lost with something different. Even though they look like fish, smell like fish and taste like fish, they aren’t the SAME fish. The genetic diversity is lacking in hatchery fish.  They don’t have the same abilities and instincts that have enabled the species to survive through drought, high water years, and other natural anomalies for thousands  of years.

Out-migrating fish passage has been troublesome since the day each dam was built. Dams limit flows, create huge stagnant bodies of water, increase water temperature, stop the movement of sediment.  Just as the ladders on the downstream side have created fish buffets for Sea Lions, the warm, still waters behind the dams have created a haven for invasive and non-native species to thrive.  Out-migrating salmon and steelhead smolts are now a food source for Pikeminnow, Walleye, Bass and others.  And how do you lead baby fish away from the spillways (and a drop of hundreds of feet) or away from the turbines which create a fish smoothie?  After ignoring the problem for decades, some changes have been made in that regard and there are success stories.  Ladder design, better control of flows at critical migration times and other measures have been put in place that have proven effective.

Probably the most highly touted “success” being the Sockeye Salmon return to Redfish Lake in Central Idaho. Historical runs of Sockeye making it home to Redfish Lake numbered in the 25,000 – 35,000 range.  The lake was named for the red color it took on each fall when the small body of water in the Sawtooth Mountains was filled with Sockeye Salmon preparing to spawn.

In the 1950’s (after the explosion of dam construction on the lower Columbia) the returns to Redfish dropped to around 5,000 fish.  That run declined further in the 1990’s and early 2000’s to less than 10 fish per year, with a few years with not a single fish returning. A combination of genetic science (hatchery raised fish with native genes) and court-ordered flow changes on the Snake and Columbia River dams has improved returns. The past few years have seen returns of 250-1200 fish. Although not truly a native run (some would argue that species is now extinct), the fish coming home to Redfish Lake do carry some genes of their predecessors. To learn more about the fish that lead to the recovery – visit The Legacy: He Spawned Hope for A Nation of Fish – the story of Lonesome Larry.

Native Broodstock programs were a nice step forward, for their time.  It sure beat taking a few strains of fish and populating an entire region with the same species. But I think all we accomplished was to put some eye shadow on that pig. We’re in a new century now folks. Things have changed in the past 40+ years. We’re smarter, we have better technology, better science and the general public actually cares a bit more about world around them. The story of Lonesome Larry is 20 years old. Even though we saved a run, we continue to dumb-down the fish. These species thrived on their own for 1,000’s of years before we started messing with them.

Instead of seeing pretty pictures and videos of how great you did 20, 40, 90 years ago, I’d like to see more bold steps forward. We’ve managed to stop the raping and pillaging, but we can do better. Keep removing deadbeat dams and apply smarter science and technology to the rest.   Build smarter ways around dams – upstream and down. Increase stream buffers in our forests and farmland to lower water temperature and filter herbicides, pesticides and petroleum products.

Work with Mother Nature, not against her. She’s been supplying our food, our lumber and our power for a long time. Treat her well and we’ll all be better off. That old saying “If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” applies well here.

As an angler, I’m trying to do my part.  I practice catch and release of native fish. I’ve even made the commitment to Keep ’em Wet to improve the survival of the fish my guide clients and myself catch. I plan to continue to speak up and join/support organizations that are challenging the status quo.

At times it seems like I’m beating my head against a wall.  I can use a barbless hook, be careful to not play the fish to death, keep him wet and release him back into the North Santiam River. And what happens then? He moves upstream a few miles and runs into the Minto Fish Trap (a new, state of the art, very impressive facility that is a huge improvement over the former facility). From there he will be moved above the trap to spawn in the couple miles of river left before running into Detroit/Big Cliff Dam complex – 2 back-to-back flood water control/power generating dams with no fish passage available. Cutoff from the 24 miles of native spawning waters that are the source of the North Santiam River.

That fish may also be transported above the Big Cliff/Detroit Complex and have the entire headwaters system to choose from. However, the offspring from that fish will have to navigate their way over or through both Detroit ( 463 feet high, Oregon’s 2nd tallest) and Big Cliff (191 feet high) dams. Studies performed at both dams in the past have shown that a very small percentage of out-migrating fish survive the fall over the spillways or the tunnel to the turbines.

An acquaintance of mine who happens to be a fishery biologist studying anadromous fish migration all over the Pacific Northwest assures me that the technology exists now to solve many of the fish passage issues – upstream and downstream. It’s not only expensive, but would cause heartburn to some water users – municipalities, irrigation districts and power producers. It changes the status quo and puts that pig with lipstick and eye-shadow on center stage.

I feel a storm brewing.  Conservation groups are winning some of the big legal battles. Some of the biggest industries in the Pacific Northwest are putting forth major advertising campaigns. It’s time to choose a side. I’m siding with wild fish.

Tight Lines and Keep em Wet!


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