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Rising temperatures threaten lower Snake River salmon

Steadily rising water temperatures in 2017 threaten salmon

July 2017

July has been a rough month so far for endangered salmon and steelhead migrating through the lower Snake River.  High air temperatures and lack of cloud cover have heated the reservoirs behind the four lower Snake River dams to 68 degrees and beyond.  At such high water temperatures, the salmon migration slows and it can cause mass mortality (remember 2015?).  Water temperatures on July 12th were 3 degrees higher than in 2016 and the 10 year average.  And they were equal to 2015.


In the past, Dworshak dam on the Clearwater River has been used to supply cold water that mixes with Snake River water to bring the temperatures down.  But that is not entirely possible in 2017.  Dworshak can release water in two ways:  one is to discharge it through the turbines and the other is to spill it through or over the dam.  If water is discharged through the turbines, it does not add considerable dissolved gases to the water.  But spilling water does increase the dissolved gas content and it if not monitored, can cause salmon and steelhead mortality.  Juvenile fish, like those in the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery just below the dam, are particularly susceptible to Gas Bubble Trauma (GBT).  The Nez Perce Tribe and the US Fish and Wildlife Service operate this hatchery.

The Problem

The US Army Corps of Engineers has been working on turbine 3, the largest of the turbines at Dworshak, for many months.  Work was supposed to be completed earlier this year.  But the contractor doing the work made an error and now the turbine is not expected to be operational until 2018.  So this leaves the US Army Corps in a bind.  Do they spill water to keep the river cool but poison the juvenile fish at the hatchery?  Or limit spill to a certain level and let the river heat up?  Total Dissolved Gas (TDG) limits are set by the state to protect fish.  A waiver has been issued by Idaho to allow the dam to spill more water and inject higher TDG levels into the river.  But thus far these higher levels of spill have not been able to keep the river below 68 F.

The decline of Snake River salmon.

The Solution

Endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead are already in dire straits.  Their numbers dropped precipitously when the four lower Snake dams were built in the 1960’s and 70’s.  This landed them on the Endangered Species List.  Billions of dollars have been spent to recover them, but it has not worked.  In 2015, hundreds of thousands of adult salmon and steelhead died in the Snake and Columbia Rivers due to heat stress.  Over 50% of the juveniles headed to the ocean died that year on their way to the ocean.   With so few juveniles making it to the ocean, very few adults are returning this year.  There is only one solution to this problem.  At the very least, Lower Granite reservoir needs to be drawn down THIS YEAR.  And the remaining three dams in subsequent years.  Without this urgent action, Snake River salmon and steelhead don’t stand a chance.

Sockeye & Steelhead return to Bonneville dam 07/03/17

Spring Chinook Salmon

The spring Chinook run is over at Bonneville dam.  The final tally:

2017:  83,624

2016:  137,215

10 yr avg:  150,783

Summer Chinook Salmon

Summer returns are now in progress at Bonneville dam:

2017:  63,253

2016:  81,652

10 yr avg:  69,802

As if those numbers were not depressing enough…

Sockeye Salmon

I wonder if any of these sockeye will make the journey to Idaho this year…

The sockeye salmon run is well underway.  Current returns at Bonneville dam:

2017:  67,621

2016:  300,833

10 yr avg:  239,986

At this point, 2017 is at 22% of 2016 and 28% of the 10 year average.


Where are the steelhead?

Steelhead returns at Bonneville dam have also begun:

2017:  5,389

2016:  16,420

10 yr avg:  17,085

These returns are less than a third of 2016 and the 10 year average returns.

Whatever the federal agencies are doing to save salmon, it’s not working.  Time to exercise Alternative 4 in the 2002 FR/EIS (breaching).  And the sooner the better.

Lower Snake Summer Passage Report 7/3/17

Spring Chinook

spring summer
Final chart of 2017 spring Chinook returns at Lower Granite dam.

The spring Chinook run has come to an end on the lower Snake River.  The finally tally for 2017 was dismal compared to last year and the 10 year average, with a 56% decline.

2017:  27,357

2016: 62,050

10 yr avg:  62,403


Summer Chinook

summer chinook
Summer Chinook returns at Lower Granite dam are running 50% below the 10 yr avg.

The summer Chinook run is not fairing much better.  It is currently half the 10 year average.

2017:  5,329

2016:  6,045

10 yr avg:  10,837

Counts taken at Lower Granite dam and reported by the Fish Passage Center (

But I thought we were having record fish returns?

This data does not support the reports of “record fish returns” cited by Washington Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers in her latest attempt to save the dams.   Record fish returns have been proclaimed by several groups including our own federal agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and Bureau of Reclamation.  Here is the chart they showed the public at the CRSO Open Houses last fall.  Looks great doesn’t it?

CRSO data
CRSO Open House data.

But if one were to look back farther in history, they would find a different story.  Here is a graph from Idaho Fish and Game going back to 1955.

chinook returns
IDF&G data shows the real story.

Recent returns are far from being records.  This is nothing more than data manipulation to support their cause.

“There are 3 kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

-Mark Twain

Policy Considerations, June 2017

policy considerations
US Army Corps 2002 EIS

Policy Considerations:  How and Why Breaching the Four Lower Snake Dams
Can Happen This Year

1.   The Corps of Engineers has inherent fiduciary responsibilities to insure existing projects continue to provide economic benefit, do not harm the environment and are technically sound throughout the project life. They do not need a Federal Judge to order a correction but can do so as an independent action.

2.   The dams have a Benefit to Cost ratio of 15¢ on the dollar (.15 to 1) in terms of National Economic Development, the standard by which the Corps must measure economic benefit. Corrected Cost and Economic conclusions based on Corps data and planning processes show breaching via channel bypass has benefits ranging from 4 to 20 to 1 with Regional effects adding more than 5K jobs in E. Washington and Lewiston.

3.   #1 and #2 are why the Corps can put the projects into a “non-operational” status. This does not change the project Purpose thus does not need Congressional Authorization.

4.   The 2002 Environmental Impact Statement, signed by the Corps Division Commander, states, the Alternative for further Systems Improvements, is unlikely to recover juvenile salmon migration (and after nearly $1 billion has not) and is no better than the existing condition or doing nothing, and that breaching provided the highest probability of meeting survival/recovery of listed Snake River Stocks. From a NEPA standpoint, this operable EIS provides the process documentation to undertake
breaching and is consistent with recent court rulings.

5.   Corrected costs for breaching via channel bypass are $339 million instead of the $1.3 to $2.6 BILLION stated by BPA in their March 2016 “Fact Sheet”. Corrected assumptions provide a far simpler removal of the earthen portion of the dam
requiring only the simplest of design and contracting; essentially a Time and Materials contract for renting bulldozers and loaders to notch the dam for hydraulic removal and placement of armor stone, if required. Time to contract award is a matter of a few weeks and easily within the Contracting expertise of the Corps.

6.   Since Bonneville Power Administration is responsible for approximately 92% of the cost of the Operations, Maintenance, Repairs for the 4 dams and full cost of all Hydropower capital costs, eg., Turbine replacements, as well as Fish Mitigation
required by the 1980 Power Planning and Conservation Act, ratepayer funds, not new Congressional Appropriations, can be used to pay for the breach costs. Under the Fish Mitigation clauses of the 1980 act, BPA could pay the full cost of breaching and could receive a credit on their Federal Debt for the dams should they choose to. They could do this as the most cost effective fish mitigation measure in the Columbia/Snake. System and to avoid loosing more money on generating power at a loss on the 4 dams.

7.   The Lower Snake Navigation system was out of service four months this year with no noticeable effect on farm shipments. Grain shipments continue to shift to truck/rail to Portland and SeaTac or truck/rail/barge to Columbia river ports using Washington States grain shuttle service because it is cheaper than the using LSR Navigation.

8.   Oversupply and balancing power already exist to take up loss of LSRD generation.

Conclusion, all relevant ethical, policy, financial, technical or biological reasons to support a Dec 2018 start of breaching are in place now. To not do so will waste additional $millions and prevent salmon/orca recovery.

Lower Snake Passage Report 6/13/17

lower granite dam
Spring Chinook Salmon passage at Lower Granite Dam

Spring Chinook Salmon

The spring Chinook salmon run continues on the lower Snake River.  As of 6/11/17, 20,617 spring Chinook adults had passed Lower Granite Dam on their journey east to spawning grounds in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.  In 2016, 58,602 fish had passed by this time.  This was similar to the 10 year average of 57,481.  It represents a 65% reduction between 2017 and 2016.

Season Closures

As a result, Idaho Fish and Game officials closed most of the spring Chinook salmon season in the Clearwater Basin.  This is devastating to small  Idaho towns like Orofino, Kamiah, Kooskia, and Elk City.  They depend upon a robust fishing season to bring anglers from around the Pacific Northwest.  Anglers spend money on lodging, gas, groceries, and fishing supplies.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist Brett Bowersox at Lewiston said the run returning to the Clearwater Basin continues to show lower-than-average survival between Bonneville and Lower Granite dams – so poor that the state’s share of the harvestable surplus already has been exhausted. The closure also will help ensure hatcheries get an adequate number of spawners, known as broodstock, to produce the next generation of springers.”   -Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune

Chinook Salmon are a keystone species.  Orcas, bears, and a host of birds depend upon their survival each year. Consequently, as the salmon runs decline, so do these other dependent species.  The single greatest action to save the endangered salmon is the removal of the four lower Snake River dams.  Recovery of salmon becomes more difficult each year they stay in place.

Clearwater Basin Chinook season closure

clearwater snake
Current and Historical Spring/Summer Chinook habitat

Spring chinook fishing closed in Clearwater Basin

No summer season is planned in drainage except for Lochsa River

  • By ERIC BARKER of the Lewiston Tribune


Idaho fisheries managers pulled the plug on spring fishing in the Clearwater Basin on Monday after giving the beleaguered season a brief second life.

The four-day-a-week season on sections of the Clearwater and its South and Middle forks that ran Thursdays through Sundays will not reopen this week, nor will it open there later this month for summer chinook. The Lochsa River is the lone exception in the basin. It is scheduled to open to summer chinook harvest June 22.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist Brett Bowersox at Lewiston said the run returning to the Clearwater Basin continues to show lower-than-average survival between Bonneville and Lower Granite dams – so poor that the state’s share of the harvestable surplus already has been exhausted. The closure also will help ensure hatcheries get an adequate number of spawners, known as broodstock, to produce the next generation of springers.

“We are still wanting to protect our ability to get brood, and the most recent information we have showed we needed to shut down even the jack fishery to protect that brood stock,” said Bowersox.

Spring chinook season opened on the Clearwater and its tributaries in late April, but high water and cold flows apparently delayed the run. Fearing a shortage of spawners, the department closed fishing on the Clearwater River and its tributaries and on the lower Salmon and Little Salmon rivers May 22.

Fishing resumed June 3 following a spike of adult chinook passing Bonneville Dam. However, fisheries managers shrunk the number of river miles open in the Clearwater basin and they restricted harvest to jack salmon only – those under 24 inches long.

Anglers harvested 77 jacks and released 170 adults during the season’s brief second life.

Fishing on a short section of the lower Salmon River and on the Little Salmon River will resume Thursday. Bowersox said flows on those rivers are dropping and the fishing conditions should be improving. Anglers caught and kept just six adult chinook on the lower Salmon River last week.

“I suspect fish should start moving in the Salmon River quite a bit more than they had been,” Bowersox said.

Bonneville Passage Report 06/12/17

bonneville spring chinook
Final Bonneville Spring Chinook Return Chart

Spring Chinook

At Bonneville Dam, the spring Chinook run ended on May 31st.  The run started late due to river conditions and never fully recovered.  The final number of adults across the dam was 83,624.  This is a 39% reduction from last year and a 44% reduction from the 10 year average.



bonneville dam
Bonneville Summer Chinook Passage Chart

Summer Chinook

The summer run started on June 1st.  As of 6/11/17, the run total was 17,384.  This is a 27% reduction compared to last year, and a 23% reduction from the 10 year average.   River conditions have been difficult for Chinook salmon this year.  But we cannot forget that 61% of juvenile Chinook perished in the hydropower system in 2015, the year that they migrated out to the ocean.



The steelhead run at Bonneville dam is just getting underway and is currently at 3,712 adults, including 1,149 wild fish (not from a hatchery).  Last year at this time, 7,164 steelhead, including 2,611 wild fish had passed.  The 10 year average is 6,985 adults including 2,017 wild fish.  The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has restricted the steelhead fishing season as a result.  This is predicted to be the worst steelhead run in 37 years.   A WDFW fishery manager, Ron Roler, left out a key piece of information when he tried to explain these poor results.

“Many of the fish returning this year were subjected to drought conditions in the Columbia Basin in 2015 and unusually warm water in the ocean through 2016,” Roler said. “We saw the effects of these conditions in last year’s upriver steelhead return, and this year they’re even more pronounced.”

When these adults were just smolts out-migrating to the ocean in 2015, steelhead mortality through the 4 lower Snake dams and 4 Columbia dams was 64%.

HR 2083 targets the wrong source of salmon mortality

HR 2083 bonneville dam
The target of HR 2083

HR 2083 “Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act”

On June 8th, 2017, a legislative hearing was held regarding HR 2083.  The purpose of this bill is to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to reduce predation on endangered Columbia River salmon and other nonlisted species, and for other
purposes.   It was introduced by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-WA.

Bill Summary

To assist the recovery of Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed salmon in the Columbia
River watershed and to protect tribal ceremonial, subsistence and commercial fisheries, H.R. 2083 authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to issue expedited permits authorizing states and tribes to lethally take California sea lions and non-ESA listed Steller sea lions (hereinafter referred to as “sea lions”) under certain conditions.

Testimony by Mr. Gary Dorr, representing Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, was included in the hearing.  His statement targets the true root-cause of salmon mortality on the Snake-Columbia River system.  To hear more of Gary’s testimony, begin listening here at minute 42.

Comments from Jim Waddell

“Once again federal agencies and prodam advocates are pitting endangered marine mammals against salmon recovery in another effort to deflect attention to the real problem, four too many dams endangering Snake River salmon and steelhead.  Immediate breaching of the lower Snake River Dams not only benefits all the endangered harvesters, whether you be a sea lion, a killer whale, a tribal, commercial or sport fisherman, or a farmer, but adds thousands of jobs to the region and saves tax/rate payer money. “

Puget Sound Orca/Snake River Salmon Connection

‘Most’ everything in this article is correct, except that the conclusion is wrong.  It was written by the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club.  Too much spill kills salmon and the incremental benefit to more spill is minimal at this point. If we want robust, economically thriving river communities, wild salmon for future generations to experience, and a healthy Pacific Northwest ecosystem for all of us, the Snake River needs to be set free from the four Lower Snake River Dams.

More spill won’t make it, so lets not ask for it. We need to be asking for immediate breach starting this year.

Little Goose Dam maintenance issues killing salmon

Little Goose Dam maintenance issues
Little Goose Dam on the lower Snake River.
2017 Incidents at Little Goose Dam on the Lower Snake River

A short summary of issues jeopardizing salmon recovery since April 11th

Incident #1

On April 11th, the first juvenile salmon and steelhead deaths at Little Goose Lock and Dam were reported. This was the day after the lock was finally returned to service after three weeks delay due to numerous operations issues. “Higher than normal debris load” through the juvenile collection system killed 94 juveniles.

Incident #2

On April 28th, another debris blockage killed 395 juveniles. This time the Corps implemented additional efforts to
manage debris issues. The salmon deaths prompted a letter from NOAA.
Eric & Ann (Army Corps of Engineers),
If I’m not mistaken this is the second debris caused high mortality incident in the Little Goose juvenile sampling and
collection system in April. I know we all hate to see these incidents that can usually be avoided by due diligence and
observation. I am wondering if its time for you to meet with the staff at Goose and walk through the system to
identify areas that may get plugged and point out how continued observation can alert staff to a developing
problem. I am hopeful this may emphasize the needs and help to avoid further problems. Thank You!

Bill Hevlin
NOAA Fisheries

Incident #3

On May 3rd, another debris clog killed 2,240 juvenile salmon and steelhead. This time gatewell orifices were found
plugged by debris. After this kill incident, orifice monitoring was to take place every 2 hours until further notice.

Incident #4

On May 1st another deadly event occurred when juveniles were mortally injured in passing or wedged into defective
vertical barrier screens because the screens had not undergone seasonal maintenance and repairs. Debris further
damaged the screens and was given as the cause of the approximately 5,000 mortalities, but reporting was late and
To repair the screens, the Corps took the turbines out of service. Incredibly, 25% of the turbines (6 of 24) at the
four lower Snake River dams have been out of service this Spring (including one at Little Goose). Then the Corps
removed another 3 turbines from service, which left 2 turbines running during these times of high flow. If water
isn’t flowing through turbines, it must spill over the dam. This creates high levels of dissolved gas in the water, that
at certain levels causes short and long term harm to juvenile and adult fish. Biologists generally agree that fish can
survive gas levels of 120%, but not a lot higher. With this years excessive spill at Little Goose, dissolved gas levels
went off the charts to 132% below the dam. Downstream at Lower Monumental Dam, 22% of juveniles were
measured with gas bubble trauma and some was severe. Additionally, adults are currently migrating upstream past
the dams and seem to be delayed at Little Goose. This means they too are being forced to endure deadly levels of
dissolved gases and for extended periods of time. This may indeed prove to be Incident #5, and potentially the
most deadly of them all for the fish.

Why did this happen?
Little Goose Dam total dissolved gas concentrations
Total dissolved gas concentrations at Little Goose Dam during emergency maintenance operations peaked at 132%, which is far above the recommended peak levels of 120%.

All of these issues stemmed from a lack of maintenance and repair of complex fish passage systems that the Corps does not have the budget to maintain. It is not because of nature, which has become the standard excuse. The flows experienced this year are not unusual and mitigating river debris is designed into the system, but only works if maintained properly. In February 2014, the Little Goose Dam debris boom that had prevented past debris issues was damaged. As a result, debris issues have occurred at the dam each year since the failure. Repairs will not occur until winter 2017-2018. Why has this taken so long? These dams are aging and much of the equipment, including the massively expensive turbines and fish passage equipment, is past its useful life. Operation and maintenance costs are escalating rapidly as predicted 10-15 years ago and budgets are not. Delayed repairs are resulting in exponentially higher future replacement costs. At some point, the Army Corps of Engineers will realize that sinking more money into these dams is futile and a poor way to spend tax and rate payer money.

Little Goose gas bubble trauma
Inspections at Lower Monumental Dam (downstream of Little Goose) showed 22% of juvenile salmon and steelhead had signs of Gas Bubble Trauma.