Columbia River Basin

Comments on:

Key resource issues, the actors and institutions, and the process of social learning


Warren Coleman, John Craig, Marianne Donohue, Maynard Hiss, Barb Houren, Kate Moran, Linda Tyson, Jackie Wilson

Warren Coleman Well, I think everyone should do without power and remove all the hydroelectric plants so that the wild populations of salmon will have the chance to recover. The fisher(people) of the region, including the indians, would be willing to make such a sacrifice no doubt. Have you ever caught a hatchery strain salmon, they are wimps compared to the wild salmon?

Seriously though, the main resouce issues being salmon, power, water for many purposes, navigable waterway and somewhere in last place recreation. A few things that caught my attention were the subtle comments Lee makes regarding the economics of various decisions between resources. Lee states that water is basically the structuring variable in the Northwest and has allowed and continues to control the economic development of the region. Lee also states that a sustainable solution to the resource in which people and the environment have formed a "viable relationship" would NOT imply that a "maximum short-run profit" and would involve more humans on the landscape than we might really like to see. The other economic reference made by Lee that I liked was the tradeoff described between allowing a more natural flow of water during times of the year when it would more profitably be stored to be sold as electicity later. An annual loss of $40 million that is only a base estimate against what appears to be a high degree of uncertainty in the benefits it is providing to the migrating salmon stocks (from the graph and discussion on biological uncertainty).

The actors and institutions involved in the Columbia basin are many and according to Lee in the B & B book, there are federal and state levels of government and agencies, the power companies both local and more regional (BPA), indians, fishermen, farmers, the Northwest Power Planning Council, and probably a host of others (not to mention the public). I don't think any progress would have been made in the Columbia Basin had it not been for the Planning Council and the open approach taken toward information sharing and reaching agreement on setting priorities based on the scrutiny of the information.

If Lee's description of Adaptive Management is 100% accurate, then I am somewhat confused about the process and how "consensus" is reached regarding the "experimental" nature of managing. Lee uses "consensus" to mean the broader held understanding of the direction in which management is headed so that at all the various levels of managerial involvment, which are discontinuous across scales, can work independently but be part of the collective process.(sounds like the BORG episonde on Star Trek to me). I guess what I am really having a problem with is Lee's description of how politics is useful for social learning. To me, "consensus" and "politics" don't go together naturally. I think of a winner and a loser when it comes to "politics" so when I read that politics is used to bound the conflicts that arise and to learn the relationships among people I tend to agree, but only for a moment. The relationships among people change rapidly depending on the situation. This is a combination of values and of what can be gained through alliances. Both of these can be short or long term processes, but in terms of politics I think they tend to be short run. This lack of foresight to me doesn't complement the hopefully longterm processes of adaptive management. I hope someone can straighten me out this Wednesday and tell me if I'm way off base or if I make some sense.


John Craig

1) Key resource issues mentioned are: (a) hydropower, that is, maximizing power and/or profits from the installed dams, which has been used over the last 50 years or so to stimulate industry and irrigated agriculture. The second resource issue is (b) the salmon stocks, principally for economic use (harvest), but also for their non-use values, (option, existence and bequest values). No mention is made of timber harvest, which to my understanding can potentially damage both the fish and the dams through increased silting. Apparently the Columbia River is largely free of silt, that is why the dams have such a long life expectancy and in general have yielded such a high profit margin. Most of the timber harvest is done lower in the watershed than the dams, so it has more effect on the salmon.

2) The principal actors and institutions at present are the Bonneville Power Authority ( a Federal agency), the Northwest Power Planning Council, and those who use power (which is everyone). Some of the major users of electricity would be aluminum smelters and other industries, and farmers that use it for irrigation. Eight utility companies produce power on the river. The US Congress and Senate seem to play major roles, and Senetor Henry Jackson was prominant. The various state legislatures are involved in planning and legislation. Some people and groups that have organized to save the fish include Indigenous tribes, sport and commercial fishermen and various environmental interest groups.

3) The thing that strikes me about social learning and the search for sustainability in the region is how little of it has occurred. If the only issue of sustainability considered were the salmon, then there does seem to be a consensus to expend (or forego) some resources to protect them. The power companies were really burned by nuclear power, presumably they learned something from that, although I would not guarantee it. After all, they just pass the costs on to the consumers. A strong theoretical case is given for adaptive management (that's what this course is about after all) and some people seem to be trying to apply it to salmon conservation, though it is not clear to what extent it has been accepted as official policy. Other big issues of sustainability remain, including the type of agricultural practices used, timber harvests, imports and exports from the region, population growth, etc.


Marianne Donohue

A. Key resource issues in the Columbia River Basin The key resource issues in the Columbia River Basin (CRB) involve the management of an ecologically sustainable salmon population with an economically sustainable hydropower system.

B. Actors and Institutions in the Basin The actors and institutions in the management of the Columbia River Basin can best be described by analyzing the three crises that developed in the region.

C. The Columbia River Basin case is an example of social learning that is needed in the search for sustainable development. According to Lee, social learning involves two complementary types of education:


Maynard L. Hiss A) Key Resource Issues of the Columbia River Basin. Natural resources including fish and wildlife. Salmon were focused on, because of it's cultural, commercial, and subsistence value, and because they are an important income source for indians and the immigrants. The spawning grounds and nurseries in rivers were impacted by development of hydroelectric and irrigation dams. Resource allocation and over harvesting in the river and oceans accentuated problems with management of the salmon. Whole system management and mitigation measures are being developed to assure populations of salmon will become sustainable. Mitigation measures have been expensive (100 million a year), and there were uncertain about the effect. Human Development of the river has been extensive. It was so intensive that it was said "The river died and came back as money". Development in the 1930's changed the focus from subsistence fishing to hydroelectric power for industry and agricultural development. Hydroelectric power spawned the development of major industries and the large urban areas of the Northwest including Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and Boise. Large scale agricultural development (3 million acres) was spawned through large public works projects for irrigation and cheap electricity which provided for pumping of groundwater. A system of inland waterways were developed to facilitate transportation and improve navigation in the region. Flood control projects were initiated as part of the dam and waterway developments. Recreation opportunities were developed are part of the projects. Increased development created new demands for power which were to be supplied by a diversity of sources, including new ones to the region. Early emphasis was placed on nuclear power which failed because of increased costs and low demands. Huge costs from failures were passed on to consumers, which created new demands for new paradigms. Ironically failures expanded opportunities for conservation and mitigation.

B) Actors and Institutions in the Columbia River Basin. Major federal legislation initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930's spawned a new era of industrial and agricultural development. Legislation and laws and old treaties set the stage for future discussions and legal challenges. The Northwest Power Act of 1980 defined new processes for participation and helped the in process of broadened regional goals. Other federal legislation including the Endangered Species Act also helped in expand the dimension of objectives, including areas of Salmon which were not protected. Federal treaties with the indians in 1855, were important in expanding the role of different parties who had traditionally been ignored. Federal treaties with Canada were critical in management and mitigation of impacts on salmon. The Northwest Power Act of 1980 provide for the Northwest Power Planning Council, which became a forum of participation of diverse and often conflicting interests. The council developed several plans for the region that included a greater diversity of view points than in the past, including a greater focus on sustainable development. The central premise of the plans was to improve planning and cooperation to minimize costs, improve conservation and technology, improve information and decision making processes and to provide for the reallocation of water budget. The major participants included several federal agencies, 7 state governments, the infrastructure operators Bonneville Power Administration, numerous dam and power company operators, 12 indian tribes, agriculture, industry, urban centers, and environmentalists. Two proviences of Canada and the Canadian government were also key players in parts of the discussions. Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Program gave fish and wildlife more equitable treatment. The program focused on 3 main areas. 1) Point of harvest - oceans and rivers, 2) hatcheries and habitat conservation, 3) migration.

C) Social Learning in the Columbia River Basin. Social learning focused on a search for sustainable development, developing a better understanding humans and nature, improving relationships with different interest groups, and changing paradigms and myths. Biological and institutional complexity and uncertainty created a need for new strategies to develop a sustainable future. A combination of techniques were used including modifying social and political institutions, opening up the decision making process to new ideas and interests, and adaptive management. Adaptive management provided a method to test large scale hypotheses and to learn from experiences which cannot be addressed with the traditional scientific methods.


Barb Houren In discussing the sustainability of the Columbia River Basin, Kai Lee defines the goal of this project as "ecologically sustainable salmon populations coexisting with an economically sustainable hydropower system". (p.214) This goal identifies two key resource issues of the Columbia River Basin; salmon and hydroelectric power. The Pacific salmon, which were once prevelant within the basin system (annual fish runs of 10-16 million), have been reduced in species and number (annual fish runs of 2.5 million) largely through human involvement with the river. Human involvment with the river has been in the form of fishing, logging, mining, irrigation, and dams. The hydroelectric power system, the world's largest, consists of nineteen major dams and five dozen (+) smaller hydropprojects. (p. 216) This power system has traditionally provided low-cost electricity, yet at a high environmental cost by debilitating the natural spawning and nursery grounds of the multiple species of Pacific salmon, and polluting the river with both industrial and urban waste.

There have been many actors and institutions involved in the management of the Columbia River Basin. Early on the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency now part of the U.S. Department of Energy, had the task of marketing, primarily to utilities, the output from the dams. When power was dwindling, the Washington Public Power Supply Sytem (WPPSS), a public utility consortium, sponsored the ultimately unsuccessful development of five nuclear power plants. Indian tribes once dominant in the basin started to fight for their rightful share of the river's productivity. Power users of four U.S. states, industrial leaders, and environmentalists also became vocal participants when electricity was limited and prices increased. The latest major player has been the Northwest Power Planning Council which is composed of 2 governor-appointed members each from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, and whose function is to guide electrical power development (including energy conservation) and to rehabilitate the fish and wildlife. Lee describes the council as "an interstate compact, a form of government organiztion that shares both state and federal authority". (p.221) Lastly, a unique component throughout these conflicts is the shared interest in the river by both Canadian and U.S. governments.

Lee states that in order for social learning to occur there must be two complimentary types of education. The first type of education focuses on better understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, or the use of adaptive management (treating human interventions in natural systems as experimental probes whose information is used to guide future policies). The second type of education focuses on a much better understanding of the relationship between the people involved. This latter type is dependant on bounded conflict (politics) because though conflict is essential for changes to occur, unbounded conflict leads to chaos and destruction. Lee describes these two types of learning, adaptive management and political change, as the compass and gyroscope of sustainable development. Adaptive management serves as a compass by producing reliable knowledge from experience to guide further actions, while political change serves as a gyroscope by stabilizing the competion produced through conflict. Social learning as described here by Lee is not a simple process, but one full of complexities and contradictions. Institutions must be able to learn from unexpected results and to treat the experimental probes reflectively and patiently, while guiding and protecting a process with often unclear paths and goals.


Kate Moran

1)Key Resource Issues

The basic issue is the effort to rebuild and stabilize salmon populations in the River System while dealing with an extensive hydropower system. 5-11 million salmon and steelhead are lost annually. These issues including natural and manmade resources involve: urban populations, industrial interests, agricultural and flood control, and recreation groups, as well as the fish and wildlife advocates. A sustainable multiple use of the fish populations is the goal and is the only satisfactory outcome, but rehabilitation costs are about $130 million annually. The salmon are used by many groups who have conflicting ideas over how the resource should be managed. Historically, the two resources, hydropower and salmon populations, have been mutually exclusive and at cross purposes, but something has to be done to ensure that the Columbia River system continues to contain both resources. Kai Lee paints a rosy picture of the intensive efforts in the Columbia, but to what extent are programs actually implemented? Are they working?

2) Actors and Institutions

The groups that are working together and apart to make the coexistence of fish and power plants possible are: state and federal agencies, Native American tribes, utilities companies, agricultural groups, recreational fishermen, and developers, among others. Major players are the Bonneville Power Administration, who maintains control of the power, and the Northwest Power Planning Council, which tries to manage cost effectiveness of power on a regional level. The public as a whole, particularly the voting population of the Northwest, has put pressure on the power companies to increase environmental awareness and look after the health of the fish stocks.

3) Social Learning

Social Learning is the mechanism by which change can be affected in the Columbia System. It means that humans will essentially have to rethink their entire belief about the control they can have over the natural systems in which they live. Social Learning recognizes the fact that humans will not automatically choose a path toward an environmentally stable system, which will be sacrificed for the sake of economic benefits. People are given the chance to learn about their natural world across the span of time, space and the functioning of the parts of the system. Having learned about the inevitable change that will occur, we need to use policy, politics, and science to acknowledge, predict, and control the changes as they happen.


Linda Tyson The most extremely opposed resource issues of the basin involve salmon and hydropower generation. Power generation is economically, socially and politically important to residents of this very large area. And, while salmon are important to people their decline represents issues related to the non-peopled constituents of the area. They are being used as an 'indicator' species. Their losses indicate widespread and long term environmental degradation directly related to the engineering attempts at harnessing the river for purposes of urbanization and economic benefit. A major wake-up call occur when economic benefit was challenge through mitigation originated by Native Americans over salmon losses. Environmentalism associated with citizen activists also spurred the debate over conservation issues. Sandwiched in the middle of these two extremes are the interests of industry, agriculture, flood control, navigation, recreation and wildlife. According to this chapter there were 11 state and federal agencies, 113 Indian tribes, 8 utilities and lots of GNO’s that comprise the current major actors and institutions in the basin. In order of size they include the U.S. Federal Government (specifically Congress and the U.S. Department of Energy) which is functions under the guise of the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA), Canadian government, state governments of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. BPA is described as the 'economic keystone' of the basin and has the authority of executing power sales contracts thereby giving new meaning to the concept of economic 'power'. In addition the Washington Public Power Supply System, a proponent for nuclear power production entered the scene in the 1970's planning 5 new nuke plant constructions in an attempt to quell the ever-growing citizen activist group concerned about conservation issues surrounding hydroelectric power generation. Native Americans were key players in forcing the issue of environmental impact measured by salmon stocks. Through pressure applied from treaties related to sharing resources they were able to mobilize efforts to rebuild salmon stocks that an established fishery and the Native Americans could share. Finally the formation of the Northwest Power Planning Council, whose charter chairman was a three time governor of Washington state, was the most effective in negotiating consensus among these players and their various interests. Lee includes the combination of adaptive management and political change is his description of social learning. In the Columbia River Basin the policy makers willingness to experiment with salmon population enhancement techniques and their ability to find political leaders willing to have these experiments fail goes far in the potential to benefit from social learning. Through deep seated desires to understand man's relationship with nature this may be possible.


Jackie Wilson Yearly migrations of salmon supported 50,000 Native Americans (Schalk 1986) up until 1850 when European settlement took over. After that time, the human population increased by more than 100 times the original Native American population, and this changed how natural resources were being managed. The Columbia River began to be used for many new functions, which ranked in order of their economic value: power, then urban and industrial uses, agriculture, flood control, navigation, recreation and then fish and wildlife. The low priority of fish and wildlife was seen with annual fish runs dramatically declining in the 1970's. However, Dr. Kai Lee claimed that since there were still some fish making yearly migrations, the river was not "dead", but there must be a search for a way in which to make the river sustainable for multiple uses. The main issues that surrounded (and still surround) managing the Columbia River are (1) increasing the salmon population so that Indians and fisherman alike can harvest fish; (2) using the river as a source of low-cost electricity by hydroelectric power; and (3) preserving the river enviornmentally despite rapid urbanization.

One of the main problems was (and still is) that the salmon population was drastically declining so that the Indians and fishermen were demanding that fish runs be repaired. This was mostly due to the natural course of the river being changed due to the building of dams for hydroelectric power. However, there was still an increasing demand for power in the 1970's, and despite suggestions for energy conservation in order to meet those extra needs, Congress allowed for 5 nuclear power plants to be built. Due to complications, only one plant was built, but the cost of electricity began to soar. In the 1980's it was decided that energy efficiency and conservation would be a better alternative.

Then when Indian tribes were granted their entitled fishing rights in the late 1960's, fisherman complained of sharing declining salmon harvests with the Indians. The Supreme Court then decided to use hatcheries in order to rebuild the salmon populations as well as protect and improve the natural spawning grounds of the salmon. Also, natural spawning habitat would be re-opened that was formerly blocked by dams. The flow from dams and "drawndown" techniques from reservoirs were being experimented with in order to find the best way to help juvenile fish in their migrations to the ocean. Despite efforts to rebuild stocks, fish runs were still declining. Dr. Kai Lee suggested a new type of management where ".. fish and wildlife measures should be seen as a series of experiments with formal experimental designs to help answer critical questions about the interaction of humans and the ecosystem. By structuring salmon recovery measures as experiments, the Council could acknowledge scientific uncertainity, act on reasonable hypotheses, and learn from the results" (Volkman and McConnaha 1993). However, due to the difficulty of performing such field experiments and time constraints, C. S. Holling and co-workers used this new idea of "adaptive management" in the form of model simulations that could predict the results of scientific experiments.

Despite the "radical" acceptance of adaptive management, the problem of decling fish runs still persists. Dr. Lee explains that the problem with managing the Columbia deals with "the larger number of hands on the steering wheel," and all these different parties have different goals. Although hatcheries try to augment the salmon population, there is concern that the hatchery stock populations will make wild stocks decline even further and will create lower biodiversity. Needless to say, this problem still needs to be resolved. The phrase by Donald Worster (1985), "The Columbia became a river that died and was reborn as money" may only be in the eyes of those that deal with power, urban, industrial and agricultural uses. As usual fish and wildlife have fallen to the wayside.


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