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Columbia River dams
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Expert: Removing dams won’t fix Columbia River’s problems

McNary Lock and Dam on the Columbia River is seen June 6, 2005 near Umatilla, Oregon. McNary is one of 14 federally operated dams on the Columbia River that Indian tribes, fisherman and environmentalists say inhibit salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. (Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

Tribal leaders throughout Washington are calling on the government to close the Columbia River dams as part of the effort to save Chinook salmon and, by extension, the orcas that rely on the king salmon.

However, Tom Nelson of 710 ESPN’s Outdoor Line said the choice is not as simple as hydro-electric power or salmon.

“I respect the position of the tribes, I do,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “If we didn’t have the tribes right now, we would have no political horsepower with regard to really making some strides forward on the habitat front.”

However, given an either-or choice of saving the dams or salmon, he does not agree that getting rid of the dams would be “the most cost-effective choice” in preserving the salmon.

Tom Nelson: Pinnipeds, not commercial fishing, depriving orcas of salmon

“It’s a multi-faceted problem, it’s going to take a multi-faceted solution,” he said.

Still, he is adamant that “we’re not doing it right with dams right now.”

Problems with Columbia River dams

For those not familiar with the dam debate, the Columbia River dams cause problems for the salmon by blocking their migration and making them vulnerable to predators. Fish ladders can be a difficult obstacle for adult salmon migrating upriver to spawn.

For the juvenile smolts traveling downriver to the ocean, there are even more challenges, Nelson explained.

“When they encounter dams, they can go through the spillway and become disoriented and available to bird predation, they can also physically become harmed if they work their way through the turbines,” Nelson said. “In effect, what we’ve done with the dams on the Columbia River system is turn a wonderful, free-flowing wild river into a series of tepid, slow-moving ponds that predators flourish in.”

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One of the smolts’ greatest threats is the pinnipeds — harbor seals and sea lions. Nelson believes a huge answer to restoring the salmon and orca population would be culling the population of the pinnipeds.

“Right now in response to the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales, we’re looking at increasing hatchery plants to supplement and boost up these runs,” Nelson said. “That’s fine, but if we don’t take a harder look at predation at the same time, we are making a very expensive bunch of pinniped poop.”

However, he explained, the tribes would “take a massive PR hit” if they advocated for managing the pinniped population.

Taking away the dams would cost trillions of dollars and hurt the “economic powerhouse” that the dams are, Nelson said.

“Right now, if we start enhancing our hatchery operations on the lower Columbia and … enhance the juvenile fish path and address the predation problems for a fraction of the money that it would take to remove those dams, we could do a better job and return more fish,” he stated.

Throughout history, settlers effectively killed off the salmon in Europe and the East Coast, Nelson explained, by destroying the creatures’ habitats.

“With making those same poor choices, we’re putting ourselves in that same position here on the West Coast,” he said. “A good, bright society can coexist with salmon. And that’s our challenge — if we degrade the habitat to the point where salmon are no longer able to survive, we’re actually, in effect, killing ourselves.”

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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