The Great Salmon Hoax is invisible to most Northwesterners. They may be paying a 20% tax in their electric bills, but the tax isn’t visible. But many communities in the Northwest have suffered much greater impacts. Each community has its own story, and this book would be overlong if I tried to tell them all. As the Great Salmon Hoax proceeds, more and more communities will suffer the same fate.

Fish Kills in the Steelhead Capital of the World

In Lewiston, Idaho the Clearwater River joins the Snake. An hour's drive up the Clearwater River is the town of Orofino, Idaho. Orofino is Idaho's sacrificial lamb to the jealous gods of salmon recovery. Orofino is home to Dworshak dam and the huge reservoir behind it, with hundreds of miles of shoreline filled with beautiful camping sites. For much of the summer now, the reservoir is empty and in place of the beautiful shoreline are steep cliffs of mud and mudflats littered with an occasional dead and rotting elk. The reservoir has been turned into a storage tank for salmon flow augmentation and huge gushes of water are released at the whim of bureaucrats in Portland.

The houseboat business is dead, the marina has gone out of business, the small bait and tackle shops that supplied the hundreds of recreational fishermen and boaters who would show up at Orofino every summer are boarded up. In the bars of Orofino, angry residents talk about armed takeovers of the dam, and hanging Idaho politicians in effigy. Most of them don’t know how far science and law was twisted to shut down their community.

On June 20, 1994, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advised the City of Orofino of its plans to lower the Reservoir levels eighty feet for the ostensible benefit of Snake River fall chinook salmon. The Corps gave the City 48 hours to comment on the plan, enough time for the Mayor, Roy Clay, to fire off a letter listing the many reasons the proposal made no sense and complaining that given that the releases would start on June 21st, “[o]bviously, no real consideration for a valid comment period was intended, thereby eliminating any public input into our government process”.1

On July 1, 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a press release repeating the myth that “ninety percent of the fall chinook, which have to traverse 900 miles and eight dams, are expected to die on their way to the ocean.” But, claimed the Service, “the additional water provided by federal water agencies will help the fish better negotiate their trip and reduce the death rate”.2 This was the beginning of a public relations campaign that has continued ever since to try and claim that the damage to the Orofino community serves some useful purpose.

The community leaders looked to the Columbia River Alliance for assistance. Dennis Harper, a local chiropractor, was an avid recreational fisherman and boater, and one of the most active in fighting to save the reservoir. He was joined by Nick Chenoweth, a leading lawyer in Orofino and James Grunke, the Executive Director of the Orofino Chamber of Commerce.

They petitioned Bruce Lovelin, Executive Director of the Columbia River Alliance, to help them fight the federal agencies. Bruce and I went to Orofino to assess the problem. Mr. Chenoweth arranged with Jimmy Dodge, a local fisherman, to give us a ride in a power boat up to the base of the dam. As we lowered the boat into the water we saw dozens of small dead kokanee lining the banks of the river. Jimmy explained that the force of the releases was expelling untold numbers of kokanee through the dam and out in the river. Many of them were broken in two from the force of their explosive emergence from the dam.

The massive releases, 15,000 cubic feet per second, were blowing out of the ports on the dam wall like giant waterfalls. Below, in the body of the dam, another 10,000 cubic feet per second of water turned turbine blades. The dam was constructed with bays for additional turbines, which would permit greater water releases without wasting the stored energy, but plans to add the additional turbines had been abandoned in the face of environmentalist opposition. It was truly an impressive sight standing on top of the reservoir and watching the thundering water.

I marveled at the engineers' capacity to harness all this power. Later I was amused to read one environmentalist’s account that the “noise, the vibration, and the height of the dam scared” him.3 There is a Continental Divide between those who fear technology and those who see it as useful.

As we motored up the river, Mr. Dodge expressed his indignation that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game refused to set a salvage season to allow the residents to pick up the fish. If they authorized the salvage season, it would draw attention to the fish kill. Jimmy was an expert in smoking and pickling kokanee and provided us with some samples of his efforts, which he gave to some of the older folk in the town.

As we got closer to the dam the water became almost effervescent and took on a deep blue-green color laced with millions of tiny bubbles of gas mixed into the water when it plunged from the dam. As we motored along Jimmy pointed out a road that the Corps of Engineers had built which he told us had destroyed a huge area of fall chinook spawning beds. We took pictures of the dead kokanee along the banks of the river.

A mile down the river is the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery. We visited the Hatchery and discovered that they were having problems because their water intake screens were becoming clogged with dead kokanee. We talked to the engineer in charge of the water system at the Hatchery, David Owsley. He told us that they were finding 40-50 dead kokanee a day on the screens, which withdraw 134 cubic feet of water per second. Assuming that the kokanee were evenly distributed in the water, this meant that about 4,500 kokanee a day were being killed, or about 135,000 if the operation continued for 30 days. Mr. Owsley thought this was likely to be an underestimate, because not all the fish stuck to the screens, and many of them were eaten by birds before they got to the hatchery.4

Based on the science set forth in Chapter 7, it was pretty clear that the release of all of this water in June wasn't going to do any good for salmon. I hadn't previously realized the harm it was doing. In addition to killing hundreds of thousands of kokanee, the cold water releases were altering the entire ecosystem of the Clearwater River.

Dworshak Dam was specifically designed with expensive selector gates, the goal being to release water from the dam at temperatures corresponding to those which prevailed in pre-dam conditions. Now every summer there are huge blasts of cold water thrown down the river which have displaced the warm water fish populations and retarded the development of the fish indigenous to that stretch of the river, including chinook and steelhead.

Most of the people in Orofino believe that the National Marine Fisheries Services' ill-conceived plans to assist salmon are injuring the steelhead. Mr. Dodge later testified: “Normally, water is released from Dworshak in the fall which lowers the temperature of the North Fork of the Clearwater River, causing the adult steelhead to migrate up the river. Because of the summer releases from Dworshak, less water has been available for releases in the fall, and fewer steelhead have been returning in the fall.”5 In 1997, the steelhead were listed under the Endangered Species Act; they were perhaps the first species put on that list, in part, by ill-conceived efforts to protect another species already on the list.

Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, an important source of returning steelhead, was especially hard hit by the cold water releases, which stunted the growth of the juveniles in the raceways. Because hatchery juvenile survival drops sharply if the fish are released at smaller sizes, hatchery managers complained about the cold water releases since they began. As of late 1996, the proposed solution is to spend $1.25 million on a giant boiler to warm up water that could have been released at the right temperature through the selector gates that now stand idle.6

The massive spill from the reservoir also caused total dissolved gas levels in the Clearwater River to rise well above the Idaho State Water quality standard of 110% of normal saturation to 121%; even 40 miles down the river, the total dissolved gas levels were measured at 117% of normal. An important part of the Great Salmon Hoax is the purposeful violation of these standards, established to protect salmon, by the fishery agencies pushing flow augmentation and spill schemes; that subject is explored at greater length in Chapter 12.


Letter, Mayor Clay to Lt. Colonel James Weller, June 21, 1994. In fairness to the Corps, the representatives had showed up in Orofino earlier and told the community leaders of the release plans, telling the Orofino citizens that the releases were required by Endangered Species Act and that there was nothing that they could do about it.

2 United States Department of Commerce News, “Federal Agencies Agree to Provide Additional Water Flows for Threatened Salmon”, July 1, 1994, at 1.

3 B. Harden, A River Lost 89 (describing a visit to Grand Coulee Dam with his father).

4 See generally Declaration of David Owsley, July 19, 1994, filed in Civ. No. 94-0030-N-EJL (D. Idaho).

5 Declaration of James Dodge, July 19, 1994, filed in Civ. No. 94-0330-N-EJL (D. Idaho).

6 Columbia River Alliance, Alliance Alert, Nov. 8, 1996, at 2.

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