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Priorities on the Columbia River

Do the Columbia and its major tributaries primarily constitute a “working river” that gives priority to human needs?

Should the Columbia River act primarily as a "working river" through hydropower, irrigation, navigation and other economic services, or a “natural river” that places a higher priority on the needs salmon and other fish and wildlife? Beneath this apparently simple question are a multitude of complex issues. For example, Fall Chinook salmon are returning to the Columbia River this year and crossing Bonneville Dam in numbers not seen since the dam was completed and counting began in 1938.   State and tribal biologists attribute the historic run to various factors, including high spring river flows when the fish migrated to the ocean as juveniles two to five years ago, spill of water and juvenile fish over dams, good ocean conditions, ongoing projects to improve fish passage at dams and the habitat where fish spawn, changes in harvest management to protect weak stocks, and improved production and survival of fish produced in hatcheries. What is less clear is the extent to which each of these factors has contributed to these successful returns.  

Not all salmon stocks are doing so well, and a coalition of environmental and commercial and sports fishing groups led by the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition are extremely unhappy with NOAA Fisheries recently released latest plan for endangered salmon. They argue that the latest plan fails to address the issues that triggered federal-court rejection of the three previous plans. They contend that they are particularly unhappy that the new plan rolls back crucial in-river protections such as spill while dismissing new data that says spilling more water for
salmon could dramatically improve overall survival. And they warn that the new plan could lead to continued litigation, potentially harming the region’s emerging collaboration around durable solutions for salmon and communities. Conservation and fishing groups, along with the State of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe, have successfully challenged previous salmon plans for failing to provide adequate salmon protections.  

Meanwhile, Northwest RiverPartners, a very different coalition comprised of farmers, utilities, ports, and business that rely on a “working river”, argues that NOAA Fisheries’ new plan has strengthened their case and reaffirmed that the federal plan is working. As Northwest River Partners executive director Terry Flores put it in a recent press release: “More than one million Fall Chinook salmon returned to spawn last year, the highest numbers since Bonneville Dam opened in 1938…And the plan has worked to bring sockeye back from the brink of extinction.”  

We will explore this issue and consider the next steps in this long, contentious, but very important debate with the help of some excellent guest speakers.