The room in the Hoff Building was packed on the blistering hot afternoon of July 26 during the Idaho Environmental forum's latest effort to deconstruct the debate of salmon recovery versus the Northwest's network of hydropower dams. Even regular attendees of IEF forums were stunned by the overflow attendance.
"You know what? I think a lot of these people are lawyers," whispered an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality employee to a tablemate. It was an excellent observation.
"We've invited attorneys from opposing sides to participate," said Greg Hahn, associate vice president for communications at Boise State University and event moderator. "They declined."
But Todd True, who has spent the past three decades defending wildlife and lands for Earthjustice, accepted and for the next 60 minutes, he delivered a message of urgency in the decades-long debate over the salmon struggling to navigate the Snake River dams as they migrate to the cool spawning waters of central Idaho.
"Living without those dams in order to save the salmon is not an unsurmountable problem. We can do this," said True. "The Bonneville Power Administration is fond of saying that there is a 97 percent survival rate of juvenile fish through the Columbia/Snake hydropower system—but you want to be very careful with that number. For example, it doesn't take into account the losses at each of the eight dams. Add to that the increased temperatures at reservoirs behind the dams. Then there's the stress of going through the hydro system. The fish are victims of something called 'delayed mortality.' The real juvenile survival rate? It's closer to 50 percent."
Three hours from Boise, at the much-cooler Redfish Lake Lodge in the Sawtooth National Forest, officials were happy to report one salmon had managed the 900-mile migration from the Pacific Ocean, swimming past Portland, Ore.; The Dalles, Ore.; spillways across the Snake River and the eight massive dams on the Snake River to the spawning waters near the Sawtooths.
"I've been here 18 years. It amazes me to watch the dynamic of the salmon—one year having one fish and another year seeing 1,800," said Jeff Clegg, general manager of the Redfish Lake Lodge. "I don't know all the reasons of how or why some fish are able to make their way back here, but I do know that people talk about it. It's exciting, and they want to know more."
From his vantage point at the Idaho Fish and Game headquarters in Boise, fisheries staff biologist Russ Kiefer said the salmon that showed up at Redfish Lake on July 20 made the journey from Bonneville Dam (about 40 miles east of Portland, Ore.) in 33 days.
"We know that because we put glass-encapsulated computer chips in the many of the juveniles, and we can track them online," said Kiefer, pointing to the University of Washington's Data Access in Real Time or DART tracking system. "Obviously, a lot of people kept wanting to know when the first salmon arrived at Redfish this year, especially considering how things were last year."
Last year was a deadly one for sockeye salmon: Most died in the too-warm waters of the Lower Snake and Columbia Rivers. Additionally, biologists noted many of the fish suffered extreme stress, ending up with gaping ulcers or sores, bulging eyes and shredded skin.
"And that's the stress that I talked about, "said True. "They truly suffer from a delayed mortality."
Altering or removing those dams would be a giant mistake, though, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power broker that administers the network of dams cherished by electric utilities throughout the region. As an example, the four dams on the lower Snake River generate an average of 1,022 megawatts annually, which is enough energy to power a city the size of Seattle every year. But opponents point to a 2009 report from the NW Energy Coalition showing that even if the region's carbon-emitting coal plants went dark and the four dams ceased operating, there is "enough affordable energy efficiency and renewable energy resources in the Northwest to satisfy load growth."
True couldn't agree more.
"The numbers I've seen ... about 950 megawatts coming from the four lower Snake River dams, primarily in the spring, due to snow run-off," he said. "But compare that to the non-hydro renewable energy, which is about 2,500 MW. Plus, there is 1,500 MW more in the pipeline, heading our way, much of it solar. That's much, much more than hydro."
Though some argue renewable sources are inconsistent because "the wind doesn't always blow" or "the sun doesn't always show," True said it's important to find a way to help the Northwest become more dependable on wind and solar and less on hydro power.
"It's a solvable problem," he said. "We still have time to find alternative solutions. People, this is not an insurmountable problem. One study says if hydro would go away, customer bills would actually go down. Another study says that customer bills might go up, but less than $1 a month."
Regardless of whether this year's salmon run is more robust than 2015 or is further indication of the species' decline, something has to give.
In October 2005, U.S. District Judge James Redden issued an order to the U.S. government in to correct its dam operations on the Snake and Columbia rivers in order to recover salmon.
"The government's inaction appears to some parties to be a strategy intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the status quo," wrote Redden. "Without real action from the agencies, the result will be the loss of the wild salmon."
Redden retired in 2011, handing the case to U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon who doubled-down in May of this year, telling dam operators continued inaction was not an option.
"For more than 20 years, the federal agencies have ignored the admonishments and continued to focus essentially on the same approach," wrote Simon. "These efforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing. Many populations of the listed species continue to be in a perilous state."
True said the U.S. government asked Simon for five more years to come up with a solution.
"And Judge Simon said, 'OK, you want some more rope? Fine, here you go,'" said True. "And to those of you who think you've seen this movie before, I would say that this isn't Groundhog Day. It's more similar to The Same River Twice."
True was referring to the 2003 documentary film that took its title from a saying by 6th century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclitus: "You cannot step twice into the same river." True is saying change is inevitable; and significant change to how we generate electricity and its dramatic impact on endangered salmon is right around the river bend.