Author: Fen Montaigne
Source: National Geographic April 2001: Pg. 2
Copyright: 2001 National Geographic Society http://www.nationalgeographic.com Dams
The tugboat Mary B, a barge lashed to its bow, held its position in the Columbia River, 140 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It was an idyllic spring evening—the temperature near 70 degrees, the humidity low, a few clouds drifting high across the blue sky.
Rising above the river on both banks were the rugged tree-covered basalt outcroppings of the Columbia Gorge, looking much as they did when Lewis and Clark passed by on their way to the Pacific nearly 200 years ago. At that time, between 10 million and 16 million Pacific Salmon swam upriver every year to their spawning grounds—one of the largest runs of the fish in North America.
Lewis and Clark would scarcely recognize the Columbia today. Engineers have built 14 dams on its main stem and some 250 more on its tributaries, reducing the free-flowing river to a series of reservoirs. This feat has been the driving force behind the development of the Pacific Northwest, providing inexpensive power for the region and turning the barren high desert of Eastern Washington and Oregon into an agricultural Eden.
In the process, however, the dams have wreaked havoc o salmon, the creature that symbolizes the Northwest, whose epic migration from streams to ocean and back again to natal streams is one of the wonders of the world. Today perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 wild salmon remain on the Columbia, less than 3 percent of their historical abundance.
That precipitous decline is what brought the Mary B and its cargo to the lower Columbia, which forms the border between Oregon and Washington. Sloshing around in the barge’s holds were 77,000 juvenile salmon, or smolts, which have been collected at dams along the Snake River, the Columbia’s main tributary. After being piped into the barge, the smolts, most reared in hatchery troughs, were getting a lift downriver for a simple reason: the trip in the water, through eight dams and several hundred miles of slow-moving reservoirs, is too often lethal.
Passing through the lock at Bonneville Dam, the last on the Columbia, the Mary B cruised a few more miles downstream. On her grey deck high cylindrical aerators spat out water that had circulated through the fish tanks. I watched as a deckhand pulled a lever to flush the salmon into the river. Bubbling and gurgling, the holds emptied like bathtubs, sucking the smolts down a yard-wide drain.
Staring at the dark surface of the Columbia, catching glints of the fish as they began their journey to the Pacific, I was struck by the outlandishness of the Mary B’s mission. There, in one of the few remaining stretches of the river that still looked like a river, hovering in a current that once as a huge salmon highway, I was watching fish being shipped down the Columbia like express cargo.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says its program has helped save the few remaining wild Snake River salmon from extinction, reporting that 98 percent of the barged smolts survive the trip pas Bonneville Dam. There’s just one problem” The fish go out, but they don’t come back. Of the roughly 15 million to 20 million juvenile fish shipped annually in recent years, less than one percent have returned to spawn—well below the 2 to 6 percent needed to sustain Snake River salmon runs.
The failure of this and numerous other programs, which have cost two billion dollars, to rebuild the wild salmon runs has ushered in a new chapter in the history of the Columbia River. Once, few questioned that a dammed “machine river” was a good thing. Now, the unthinkable has come to dominate the debate on the Columbia and the Snake. Biologists, environmentalists, Indian tribes, and commercial and sport fishermen say the time has come to dismantle a portion of this spectacularly engineered river system. Their target? The four dams on the lower Snake River, the tributary that once was…