VANCOUVER, Wash.—If dollars spent equated to salmon recovered, the Northwest may well be awash in fish.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been plowed into improving habitat for salmon and steelhead over the past three decades in the Columbia River basin, all in an effort to recover wild salmon runs that have now dwindled nearly to the point of extinction.
Yet regional fishery managers are only now devising systematic ways of assessing the hodgepodge of man-made log jams, side channels and tree-plantings scattered across the Northwest.
"It's a huge expenditure of public money," said John Harrison, public affairs officer for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. "And we need to know whether what we're buying is working."
In the three decades since the four-state council started tracking ratepayer money funneled toward offsetting the damage from the hydroelectric system, roughly $850 million has been spent on habitat restoration in the Columbia River basin alone. This does not count the multitudes of projects bankrolled by other federal agencies, states or local organizations.
One group of researchers pegged the total cost of river restoration projects nationwide at more than $1 billion — annually.
Just last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire endorsed $101.5 million worth of habitat projects statewide seeking a piece of federal stimulus money.
On top of that, federal agencies earlier this month committed another $40.5 million for restoration projects on the Washington side of the Columbia River estuary in return for Gregoire's endorsement of the federal plan to operate dams. (Oregon, which shares the estuary but is suing to force fish-friendly changes to federal dams, gets zilch.)
What do we get for all that money?
It's tough to say.
Emily Bernhardt, an assistant professor of biology at Duke University, joined other researchers across the country to figure out elements in common between successful river restoration projects. They formed a database of 37,000 projects across the country. The project fizzled, however, when it became apparent that scarcely 10 percent indicated any monitoring at all.
"There is a great deal of this work going on and very little accountability," Bernhardt wrote in an e-mail after The Columbian published a story earlier this year about a project on the East Fork of the Lewis River that collapsed after just a few months.
In a study published by the journal Restoration Ecology in September 2007, Bernhardt and 11 other researchers wrote that project information is kept on a piecemeal basis. Of the data that was available, much of it had been filed away on shelves and in filing cabinets. The study suggested a national program of strategic monitoring so project sponsors could share information about what works and what doesn't.
Researchers conducted telephone interviews of 317 restoration project managers across the country.
"Ecological degradation typically motivated restoration projects, but post-project appearance and positive public opinion were the most commonly used metrics of success," the researchers wrote. "Less than half of all projects set measurable objectives for their projects, but nearly two-thirds of all interviewees felt that their projects had been completely successful."
In the Northwest, fishery managers are beginning to devise more systematic approaches. It's not easy to make the case for studying a river restoration project after it's finished, said Ken Dzinbal, who is coordinating a monitoring program for projects underwritten by the Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
"If you're a congressman or state senator, it's far more noteworthy to announce you've got $1 million to fix a problem," Dzinbal said. "It is not very noteworthy to say, I got another $100,000 to make sure we can continue to monitor this 10 years from now."
State authorities conducted their first comprehensive monitoring study of restoration projects in 2002, he said. They're trying to answer three basic questions. Did the project work? What's the cost-benefit? What's the ideal design?
"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."
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Information from: The Columbian.