Adaptive Management in the Columbia River Basin

Garry Peterson

Salmon and Power

"They talk about cheap electricity. Hydropower. It's not cheap. It's all been paid for by the salmon. When those lights come on a salmon comes flying out." -Billy Frank Jr., Chairman Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Salmon in the Columbia

The tribes of the Columbia River Basin lived with the salmon for thousands of years, but the last century of development has greatly reduced the number of salmon and driven many runs to extinction. The Columbia River now has salmon runs of 2 million fish, an 80-90% reduction of its former population. Many of the runs in the upper portions of the river are extinct. In 1991, one quarter of approximately 400 NW fish stocks, including salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat trout1, were extinct, and 214 were threatened. Only a few dozen are considered healthy.


There are four federal agencies which control dams in the northwest: the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The first three agencies actually operate dams, while the FERC regulates the operation, and construction of private dams. The BPA funds the power council and its recovery plans, the other agencies have to operate so that they are 'consistent' with its plans. Washington state just won a victory against the FERC and private dam owners by achieving the right to regulate dams under the clean water act (force dams to release water for downstream water quality). The judge ruled that water quality and water quantity are inter-related.

A clarification of the nuclear scandal

Following the implementation of the Northwest power planning act in the early 1980's a radical change occurred in the position of the utilities. The change had its roots in the 1970's when a projected shortfall in generating capacity caused the BPA to lead a consortium of federal, state and private utilities to construct a set of five nuclear power plants. High interest rates, cost over-runs, and reductions in electricity demand led to the program ending in costly failure. The BPA currently spends about a third of its $2 billion revenue on servicing the debt this fiasco created, resulting in a sevenfold increase in the cost of electricity in the Columbia River Basin during the late seventies and early eighties. The increase in rates, and a power surplus caused the council to focus on power and environmental conservation, rather than the construction of new plants.

Currently the BPA is in financial trouble. It is asking that congress needs to consider restructuring BPA financial payments in order that it can continue to do conservation. It is falsely implying that the salmon protection measures are to blame for its finical condition, while it is in fact the servicing of its massive debt following the 1983 collapse of its investment in nuclear reactors which has eliminated its financial foundations. They have recently been losing contracts to private power companies that not only can offer better rates, but more flexible contracts.

On Jan. 9, 1996, the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation released their final report on the Columbia River System Operation Review. The five-year study concluded that the best option was to operate their 14 hydropower dams in the Columbia basin in compliance with the NMFS salmon recovery plan.

Barging and Trucking
As was mentioned in class the Corps of engineers currently trucks and barges some salmon around dams every year. The Army Corps of Engineers does not increase flows through some of their dams to let fish pass, rather they collect the salmon, load them into barges or trucks and transport them past the last dam on the Columbia where they are released. Data supporting this practice are sparse and ambiguous. The Corps’ biologists recognized this fact, but due to their assumption that barging helped fish, especially in dry years, they neglected to establish any controlled experiments. Recently, it has become clear that fish populations haven’t increased despite barging, and some scientists have suggested that barging may be doing more harm than good.

In 1993 several environmental groups sought an injunction against continued barging, but presented with the inconclusive evidence either way the court rejected the petition. Barging presented an ideal situation for adaptive management (barging could be tried in some years on some rivers and not in some years and not on other rivers), but managers with misplaced certainty in their approach, in combination with institutional inertia, have lost a decade which could have been used to reduce the uncertainty surrounding barging.

In early December 1995, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released one of its last reports on fish passage technology. OTA recommended that Congress establish a technology certification organization to provide unbiased data since 40% of nonfederal hydropower projects have no performance monitoring to assess whether fish passage devices are actually working. OTA also noted the important role habitat management on National Forest lands can play in salmon restoration. In addition, OTA noted the lack of knowledge about salmon behavior and limited understanding concerning why some fish passage devices work well and others do not.

Endangered Species Act

"Everyone was enormously optimistic about the [NPPC Act of 1980]. We thought it had the clearest language in the world. We thought we didn't need the Endangered Species Act." -Lorraine Bodi, attorney for National Marine Fisheries Service

"From the salmon's perspective, nothing could be more radical than business as usual in Columbia and Snake Basin watersheds. Actions to rehabilitate salmon habitats are far outpaced by continuing watershed degradation in most areas of the Columbia Basin. Every year, state and federal land management agencies allow and encourage activities that will decades to recover from. For instance, it takes about two decades for riparian vegetation to recover in areas where livestock grazing has denuded stream banks; three to ten decades for spawning gravels to be flushed free of sediment impacts from road building, grazing and logging. Continuing degradation of salmon habitat is inconsistent with the investments the region and the nation are making to lessen the impacts of the dams and reduce harvest." -Samuel Penney, Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

From 1980 to 1992, the BPA has spent or forgone about $1 billion dollars on salmon enhancement, while during the same period salmon populations have declined from 4 million to 2 million. This apparent management failure caused people to press for action despite the fact that solutions to the salmon’s decline were not clear. The situation in the Columbia River demonstrates a common problem in the management of natural systems. Institutional learning becomes difficult to develop and maintain when biologically important temporal scales, such as the salmon life cycle and climatic variation, are much slower than the dynamics of the human political and technological culture of the Columbia.

In 1989, a Snake River Sockeye population was the first salmon listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Other salmon stocks from the Snake and Columbia River soon followed, and many other salmon populations were also proposed for listing under the ESA. The listing of the salmon under the ESA provides the salmon with protections from ‘taking’, and requires that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) develop a plan which encourages the salmon population to recover.

The listing of these species is a mixed blessing for the management of the Columbia. On the positive side the threat of severe restrictions on future activity forced the various ‘salmon’ agencies and groups together to determine their response to the listing. The negative side of the act is that it limits the flexibility of salmon recovery plans, because tests of recovery ideas might jeopardize endangered species. It also increases the likelihood that plans will be worked out through the federal courts which will likely be forced to address the problems of the Columbia in a piecemeal fashion. Management by lawsuit could lead to a situation where a few salmon runs are prevented from going extinct, but at the price of the continued degradation of salmon in the Columbia as a whole, leading to an ever growing extinction crisis. The endangered nature of the salmon makes it extremely important to rapidly increase scientific understanding, while simultaneously requiring that the learning must proceed carefully and cautiously.

In response to the ESA listing, Oregon Sen. Hatfield organized the 1990 Salmon Summit at which almost all salmon and Columbia stakeholders, such as tribes, utilities, the BPA, the power council, land managers, environmentalists, and fishermen, were brought together to share information and develop a consensus about what needed to be done to avert federal intervention which could be damaging to all of their interests. They reached a limited agreement for action in 1991, that rapidly began to fall apart following the meeting.

The meeting did lead to continued inter-group consultation by the council, and based upon those meetings it produced the ‘Strategy for Salmon’ document that lays out an integrated regional blueprint for salmon restoration. The council’s document was not binding for all the agencies it involved, but was aimed at giving them targets and information to use in developing their own plans, as well as providing a benchmark by which their programs could be judged. In 1992 the NMFS presented its first recovery plan, and it was promptly challenged in court when it did not recommend changes in dam operation. Their revised 1993 plan was similar to the council’s Strategy for Salmon plan. It recognized the problems of dams, but advocated improved barging rather than changes in dam operation. It recommended that gillnetting on the river should be phased out, and that the US-Canada salmon treaty be renegotiated to reduce the take of Columbia salmon off the Canadian coast. It also suggested that the NMFS should be given the final responsibility and authority over the many agencies involved in salmon management. The council disagreed and suggested that it be given increased power over the Columbia Basin. The power went to the NMFS.

In 1994 the involvement of the courts in deciding the management of the Columbia increased. The NMFS recovery plan is being rewritten after the US district court found it ‘seriously, significantly flawed’ in March. The council’s Strategy for Salmon is also being rewritten following a September order from the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled that the current strategy was too concerned with industrial concerns, because they had rejected the advice of state and tribal fishery managers for significantly increased water flows in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The court ruled that the council was required to make salmon restoration the strategy’s primary goal, with economic concerns secondary.

In 1994 there were several crises in the fishery. Due to low salmon numbers the coastal coho salmon and most of the coastal chinook fishery was closed for the first time ever, and the collapse of the negotiations for this years US-Canada salmon treaty led to overfishing of salmon off the Canadian coast.

Egan, T. 1990. The good rain: across time and terrain in the Pacific Northwest. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Is a new york times reporter's book about history and change in the pacific northwest - with a focus on human-nature relations.

Volkman, J. and W. E. McConnaha. 1993. Through a glass darkly: Columbia River salmon, the Endangered Species Act, and Adaptive Mangement. Environmental Law 23:1249-1272.

Wilkinson, C. 1992. Crossing the next meridian: land, water, and the future of the west. Island Press, Washington, DC.

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Copyright © Last modified: Feb 8 1996