As the Northwest Power and Conservation Council prepares to release the next version of its Fish and Wildlife Program, Council members got into a discussion about perceptions of the program during their June meeting. After spending nearly 40 years and $16.8 billion on salmon recovery, an addendum to the Program still being developed is expected to highlight recent successes and pave the way for evaluating future successes and failures.

When the Council last amended the Program five years ago, those involved in salmon recovery were reveling in the successes. States and tribes were forecasting another fabulous year of returns for Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, as well as steelhead. When all was said and done, some 1.3 million Chinook, 294,000 coho, 456,000 steelhead and 614,000 sockeye made it past Bonneville Dam that year. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, total adult returns of these four species to the Columbia River exceeded 3.5 million for the first time since the program began.

Developed under the Northwest Power Act to guide the Bonneville Power Administration's obligation to mitigate for fish and wildlife losses, the program clearly seemed to be working.

Then came "The Blob," an intense Pacific Ocean heat wave, and in a few short years, run sizes plummeted.

Estimated returns for the last few years are a third to a quarter the size of 2014's. So it's no surprise that in its call for recommendations for amendments to the program, the Council received some rather pointed accusations of failure.

Here's an example, from Trout Unlimited: "The stark reality is that the program has been in operation for almost four decades, billions of dollars of investment have been made toward salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia Basin, and yet the 'status' of Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed fish populations remains unchanged."

The idea that the status quo in Pacific Northwest salmon recovery isn't working has become a theme. It was often repeated during the Andrus Center for Public Policy's annual environmental conference in Boise, Idaho, in April, where panelists discussed ways to find common ground for restoring runs to the Snake River. And it's been a large part of the logic put forth for removing the Snake River dams.

Nearly 40 years and $16.8 billion dollars in fish and wildlife spending since 1981, and what does the region have to show for it?

Council member Jim Yost, who represents Idaho, raised the question at the June 12 Council meeting after Steve Schroder, chairman of the Independent Scientific Review Panel, presented findings of the ISRP's review of 48 projects in the program.

Schroder provided an enthusiastic overview of the many exciting research projects designed to help fish get upstream and downstream, and to help scientists understand how to aid them in their journey. At the end, Yost asked Schroeder about the perception that the program hasn't made any progress, and a brief discussion ensued.

"In my personal opinion, I think we've made a lot of gains," Schroeder told the Council. But earlier in his presentation, he conceded, "One of the really tricky things is how best to convey all the really fantastic things going on in the basin."

One way, he said, is through publications like the Columbia Basin Bulletin, which was one of BPA's recent cuts to programs that don't have a direct impact on fish recovery. The online publication is now continuing through paid subscriptions.

In a conversation after the meeting, John Harrison said that communicating the program's successes has always been a struggle. "It's a windmill I've tilted against for a long, long time here," he said. "It's gotten progressively harder to get people's attention."

Harrison came to the Council in 1990 after working as a reporter and editor at the Columbian, a daily paper in Vancouver, so we're talking decades of experience and work to get news about the Fish and Wildlife Program out to people in the Northwest.

He recalled that many newspapers in this region used to have a specific reporter dedicated to covering energy, with another covering fish and wildlife issues. Papers with regionwide audiences like The Oregonian and The Seattle Times regularly covered Council meetings. Some reporters became experts in their own right on those topics, he said. But over the past two decades, as more and more people began getting their news from the internet, news outlets have cut budgets and staff, and that expertise in newsrooms has disappeared. Now, he said, almost no one even covers the Council's monthly meetings besides the Bulletin and Clearing Up, NewsData's energy trade journal where the NW Fishletter stories are first published.

In our discussion, we hit on a number of reasons why the BPA and the Council get only occasional attention in the news media, even though they're large government agencies making decisions for an area the size of France, and involving the biggest river system and largest energy supplier in the Northwest.

Harrison noted that fish and energy are complex subjects, so understanding them and then explaining them to the general public is challenging. Many salmon recovery projects don't offer immediate outcomes, so it's hard to judge success. "Some of these projects--like restoring riparian habitat--can take decades. You can't just look at a program that is designed to improve habitat, count the redds and say it failed because there are only two this year."

Also, most media outlets focus on local stories. "There's less interest in Wenatchee on a project in Idaho, even if it's a great one," he said.

At one point, Harrison wrote individual news releases to target specific areas. "I got a little interest, but not a lot, surprisingly," he said. "Now, I just try to tell people the most important things we are doing and hope that someone out there picks up on it." He's also using social media and a blog with teaser paragraphs to bring attention to the Council's work.

Some of the challenge is admittedly due to the interest level of editors, reporters, and the public at large, who seem so tuned in to politics these days. "It's like flipping a light switch," Harrison noted. "People don't really care where their power comes from as long as the lights come on."

Apparently, they also want salmon in their rivers, oceans and grocery stores; but they don't care what it took to get them there.

Next month, the Council expects to release an addendum to the 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program. It's the result of more than a year of work by the Council's staff and its Fish and Wildlife Committee to review recommendations by states, tribes, nonprofits and individuals; and to respond to their thoughts and suggestions for improving the program.

The committee did not revise its 2014 program. Instead, a few key areas will be addressed in an addendum. One of those is improving the ability of projects within the program, and the program itself, to track progress and determine success.

At the June meeting, Patty O'Toole, the Council's manager of program performance and development, told the full Council that the draft addendum includes a section that highlights some of the program's accomplishments over the last five years.

Council member Ted Ferrioli, representing Oregon, explained the committee's decision to include recent successes. "If people have been aware of the effort--the recovery effort since 1980--I think they have every reason to ask, 'What have you done for us lately?'"

As a reporter who does cover the Council regularly, it will be interesting to see and report on those successes, and to hear whether the public agrees--especially in a year with such dismal returns. Perhaps that's partly the crux of the problem: just as the public expects the lights to go on, the public also expects salmon runs to continually get better as ratepayers spend more and more money--even though runs have always been cyclical, and salmon have never faced the magnitude of challenges that the climate crisis is now bringing.

After Schroder's presentation, other Council members offered some interesting perspectives on the situation.

Vice Chairman Richard Devlin wondered if the Council may have reinforced the notion that the program is failing by setting a goal of 5 million fish returns. Everyone compares the current state to this goal, he noted, and the further they are from meeting it, the worse people think they're doing. "I'm wondering, if we hadn't done all this, what would conditions be now? How many would have gone from threatened to endangered, or to no longer existing?" he asked.

Council member Guy Norman, who represents Washington, lamented that the region tends to over-celebrate when runs are high, and conclude that we're failing when returns are poor.

A more realistic perspective, he suggested, is that salmon runs ebb and flow with the changes in ocean productivity, the state of El Nino, and other factors.

The Council's work, he suggested, is "actually supplementing the high marks" when ocean conditions are good, and "buffering the low ends, when we have poor ocean productivity."

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.