In the 1930s, starting with Bonneville, the federal government built six dams along the Columbia River. Then in the 1960s and 70s, four more dams went up on a tributary, called the Snake River, once the mother lode of salmon. It's these last four dams that have been targeted for removal.
"These four dams came on late in the grand orgy of dam building in the Columbia River. The salmon, frankly, were doing fairly well. Not good, but doing fairly well with all these other dams in place. When you started adding the four dams, it was the cumulative effect that finally broke the camel's back," says Ed Chaney, a former state wildlife official, who heads Chinook Northwest, an environmental group.
Chaney says it was the " tipping point."
The salmon population has plummeted from 16 million at its peak to just over one million today. The dams are one reason, but there are others: too much fishing over the years; damage to the rivers and streams by logging and farming, and urban pollution. Salmon migrate right through the middle of downtown Portland, Ore.
"All of those things have contributed to the diminishment of those once enormous populations. Only one thing threatens the salmon with extinction, however. And that's the dams," Chaney argues.
To save the salmon and keep the dams, the government spends a bundle on a system involving eight different federal agencies. That doesn't begin to account for all the local government workers, private consultants and university fish scientists who inspect, poke, and measure. It has come to be known as the "salmon recovery industry."
Asked what the system does with all that money, Lovelin says, "Well, it pays for biologists, Jeeps, computers, bureaucracy, administrative overhead."
To do what?
"And a little bit of salmon recovery," Lovelin says.
Another expense: hatcheries. So far it has cost over $900 million to produce salmon in vats and buckets to replace wild fish killed by the dams. But you have to wonder, since large numbers of hatchery fish are also killed by the dams.
On top of that, they've been studying the problem for 25 years in a plethora of research projects. In one such project, adult fish are tagged, and fed a tracking device.
In another study, in a cramped trailer near one of the dams, 20 women and one young man plant computer chips in tens of thousands of baby salmon.