In drought, conflict emerges between fish and man

Crosscut archive image.

Salmon migrating upstream in the Bonneville Dam fish ladder.

Years ago, when a committee was putting together a groundwater management plan for Vashon Island, a consulting firm brought its groundwater expert to a public information meeting. This hydrologist really was an expert — he had written a book on the subject — but he was also in the business of finding water for people who hoped to profit from it. There's no lack of water on Vashon, he said; all you have to do is dry up the streams. He was lucky to escape the island without tar and feathers.

To be fair, he just reflected the old way of looking at water supplies. Number one priority: use it for human benefit. There is no number two.

No longer. Government and the courts now protect "in-stream" flows for salmon, other critters, aesthetics, and more. In Washington, salmon have a special place in the calculations. Endangered Species Act listings and the treaty rights of Indian tribes make it impossible to just forget about the fish.

Nevertheless, spurred by the current lack of summer water, some people are trying to forget, while others, for transparent reasons of self-interest, are steadfastly remembering.

In Seattle, the city started the summer by saying it had plenty of water. On July 8, it downgraded the water outlook from "good" to "fair." Now, Seattle has announced phase one of a water shortage contingency plan, under which citizens are advised to conserve water, though not ordered. This may be the first indication that there will be less water left in the Cedar River for fish.

On the website dealing the city's water supply outlook, a message recently read that that flows for the river are "being held at guaranteed flows for this time of the year and are providing full protection for incubating salmon and steelhead trout."  That may or may not last. Tom Fox, who retired last year as Seattle's water resource manager, says that without rain, the the city will have a hard time providing normal flows in early fall.

During the first term of Richard Nixon, the Washington state legislature called on the Department of Ecology to set minimum flow levels for all the state's rivers. They only did so for half of the state’s watersheds, and the legislature doesn't want more. If summer drought becomes the norm, the legislature isn't likely to want them in the future, either.

Therefore, the fish in most of the state's watersheds may be on their own. Already, in Okanogan and other counties, listed fish populations must deal with streams that basically dry up in the summer — and with zoning that would let new development suck even more water out of the stream basins.

Where the state has established minimum flow levels, that's harder to do. Two years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that Ecology couldn't routinely override minimum flow levels to provide water for development, simply by justifying it as an "overriding consideration of public interest." However, the tighter the water supply, the more tempting it will be to argue in any particular case that the public interest requires taking more water out of a stream, and away from fish.

In some watersheds, there are government agencies, municipalities and agricultural interest groups who are using the welfare of fish as a rationale for building and enlarging dams. Hence, more water for salmon and hatcheries is being used to justify dams in the upper Yakima Basin and in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. In the Yakima, a grand bargain among irrigators, municipalities, the Yakama Nation and environmental groups includes but does not fund long-sought storage projects. Near Leavenworth, an Icicle Working Group financed by the state Office of Columbia River is contemplating more storage near the Enchantment Lakes.

However, newly stored water might not actually go to fish in a drought. Rachael Osborn of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP) – who sat on the steering committee of the Icicle Working Group until her group pulled out of the process recently — explains that the new storage would provide guaranteed water for the city of Leavenworth, but not much for the fish.

"The Icicle Work Group is trading compliance with existing laws for new water out of the Alpine Lakes,” Osborn argues. "We're never going to be able to go along with this.” Water for fish has become contingent on water for development and agriculture.

California may provide a good example of what happens if there's not enough water for either. There, you already see an explicit conflict between agriculture and fish. In the Sacramento River delta, fish advocates claim the state is allowing fish to suffer as farmers drain the river. The farmers say their businesses will suffer because so much water has been reserved for fish. No doubt, they're both right. They're both facing the new reality.

Whether or not this year's seasonal drought is a result of climate change, it matches the climate change scenario that virtually all experts predict for the coming decades. That means lower flows in the summer and fall, and higher water temperatures.

The University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group expects higher temperatures to place the greatest stress on fish within the Columbia Basin and in the Lake Washington ship canal. "Thermal stress" is already with us. This year, fish have been dying in the lower river because of high temperatures.

The Columbia River is, of course, the greatest salmon stream on this side of the Canadian border, home to 13 threatened or endangered fish populations, and the source of chinook salmon that may be vital to the recovery of Puget Sound orcas. The section of the river most likely to retain cold enough water for salmon lies in Idaho, above the four lower Snake River dams. That is one justification for breaching or at least giving serious consideration to breaching those dams.

But the federal agencies responsible for the dam system — abetted by, among others, the state of Washington — don't want breaching on the table. The current biological opinion (BiOps) regarding the Columbia River dams doesn't seriously consider it. It remains to be seen how federal judges will deal with the issue.

If summer water becomes chronically scarce, there will be increasing pressure to short-change the fish. The Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will barge as many juvenile salmon downstream as possible, and defer serious thoughts of dam breaching as long as the courts allow. State legislators will make sure Ecology doesn't upset the status quo with new in-stream flow rules. The clamor for more storage in the Yakima Basin will intensify. But of course, all that was going on before this year's drought.

Explicitly or implicitly, a continuing lack of summer water may also change the discussion. Do we value people more than salmon? Of course. But how much do we value green lawns, east-of-the-mountains urban growth, barge traffic to Idaho, and the ability of farmers with interruptible water rights to raise perennial crops? As these issues become more urgent, we may start to question just how much we really care about fish, and how much we’re willing to help them.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.