"Without an objective monitoring program, we'd be reduced to (project sponsors) saying, Yeah, this works," Dzinbal said. "With monitoring, we can compare it to other projects in the state."
Some argue that money for monitoring would be better used directly improving habitat. Tony Meyer, executive director of the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group in Vancouver, had a blunt response when asked what would be the right amount spent on monitoring the success of projects.
"None," Meyer said. "The answer is, None."
The reason: Money spent studying the problem is money that's not spent on actually improving the habitat. Biologists already have several decades of experience designing habitat projects of the kind constructed by his organization, Meyer said.
"I could bury you in tech reports," he said.
Dzinbal said the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which underwrites many of Meyer's projects, has lately tried to strike a balance by relying on random sampling to check in on projects one, five and 10 years after completion. But the board won't be able to base conclusions about what works and what doesn't until it has a chance to see what becomes of the projects being completed now.
"We're concerned that maybe some of this stuff doesn't last," Dzinbal said. "We really want to know whether or not some of this stuff actually works."
In the meantime, the board will continue handing out money.
River restoration projects across the region have proliferated since the first Endangered Species Act listings of salmon and steelhead beginning in the early 1990s. Wild salmon runs have suffered the effects of a century of overfishing, dam-building and mankind's general imprint on the loss of cold, clean water running in rivers.
Rather than take on some of those politically divisive and economically painful root causes of the salmon's decline, local organizations have embraced river restoration as a hands-on way of helping fish directly.
They've piled wood and rock structures into rivers, dug side channels and planted streamsides.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council last year directed $60.7 million in habitat enhancement projects throughout the Columbia River basin. The Bonneville Power Administration provides the money as part of its commitment to offset the damage created by the federal hydropower system.
The council historically relied on local project sponsors to make the case that their projects are worthy of funding, said Tom Karier, one of two Washington representatives to the council. Monitoring was an afterthought.
"There was never a systematic, basinwide approach because we are sort of a disaggregated, multi-entity effort," Karier said. "We have funded lots of projects that have their own monitoring and evaluation, but it was never integrated into a systemwide method.
"We now realize, after trial and error, that we need to have a more standardized approach."
Karier is spearheading an initiative to devise common indicators of success. For example, the council will want to know the number of juvenile fish that emerge from wild spawning beds near restoration projects. In addition, the council is devising common metrics for what each project is intended to accomplish, such as the number of stream miles opened by replacing a road culvert.
Federal fishery managers acknowledge the need for a common system to measure success. U.S. District Judge James Redden, who is weighing a crucial decision on the legality of the federal government's latest Columbia basin salmon plan, has indicated it's not enough for the feds to promise increased spending on habitat restoration projects. He expects results.
"Monitoring is not sexy, but it is absolutely necessary," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, "both to point out when you have a success and to say to the taxpayers that the money you've entrusted to us has been well-spent."
Information from: The Columbian.