Salmon, Dams and the Snake River

by: Posted on: October 24, 2010

Restoring Columbia Basin Salmon – An opportunity to protect a species, secure a food, and revitalize an ecosystem.

As I write these words, wild salmon and their cousins – steelhead – are swimming upstream from the Pacific Ocean toward the many nooks and crannies of the Columbia Basin. Every year since forever, salmon have emerged from the saltwater to fight the river’s current and return to their natal streams where they, like their parents before them, will spawn and die.

Many Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead, especially those on the Snake River, were doing relatively fine until the 1975 completion of the four lower Snake River dams. That’s when Snake River stocks plummeted by 90 percent. The Coho salmon then completely disappeared in the 1980s.  Wild sockeye, steelhead, and Chinook are still hanging on by a thread.

In the last century dams (there are more than 200 major dams in the basin) and other forms of habitat destruction have devastated salmon and steelhead – depriving people and wildlife of a delicious nutritious food, unraveling jobs and communities, and putting at risk one of our region’s keystone species.

Today, we see just 2 percent of the up to 30 million salmon and steelhead that once annually flooded into the immense Columbia Basin.  Most of those that remain come from hatcheries, which the federal government built in order to offset the anticipated devastation that dams would have on the region’s wild salmon and steelhead.  But we’ve since learned that hatchery fish are no substitute for wild fish.

All remaining Snake River stocks are imperiled today.  Scientists have said for years that the removal of just four dams – those on the lower Snake River – would be the best and probably only action to protect and restore this endangered icon from extinction. Restoring this 140-mile stretch of river and reconnecting wild salmon and steelhead with more than 5,000 miles of ancestral habitat represents our country’s greatest salmon and river restoration opportunity.

Over the past two decades, the federal government has spent more than 10 billion public dollars on ineffective alternatives to lower Snake River dam removal.  It has wasted big bucks barging salmon past the dams to the ocean, killing salmon predators like Pikeminnow and investing in a scattering of habitat improvement projects on smaller tributary streams.  The government, meanwhile, has insisted on ignoring the lethal impacts of the mainstem dams, including the four on the lower Snake River. Notwithstanding this grand effort and expense, not one population has recovered in the twenty years since the first salmon population was listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Despite the decades of failure, barging and predator control remain the federal government’s preferred actions.  The Obama Administration now seeks the court’s approval of the governments newest 10-year, $10-billion plan in early 2011. Salmon and fishing advocates, however, along with the State of Oregon and Nez Perce tribe, are confident that the plan falls far short of the legal and scientific requirements of the Endangered Species Act – and will be ruled illegal.

Removing the four lower Snake River dams, combined with replacing the limited energy and transportation services that the dams provide can provide a sustainable path forward: protecting salmon, benefiting farmers and fishermen, and saving taxpayer dollars. Studies support this type of comprehensive solution as feasible, affordable, and effective.

For example, the RAND Corporation found in 2002 that removing the four dams and replacing their energy with efficiency and renewables would create more than 10,000 jobs in the fishery and clean energy sectors. A more recent analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC) found that most new Northwest energy needs, including the power required to replace the energy of the Snake River dams, can be met with inexpensive energy efficiency. The rest can be met with cost-competitive renewable sources like wind.

A 2003 independent transportation study by BST Consulting found that upgrading the existing rail network to replace the barging system would cost between $230 million and $1 billion.  Additionally, the reservoir of Lower Granite dam (the uppermost of the “Lower 4” dams) in Lewiston, ID is filling with silt, reducing the value of the local port and requiring costly dredging and levee expansions if normal operations can be expected to continue into the future.

Affordable, achievable solutions exist that can work for salmon and people. There is still time to change course and start down a path toward a truly sustainable Northwest – with abundant wild salmon, healthy farms, clean and efficient energy, and an economy and culture that is creating jobs.

In the Columbia and Snake Rivers this year, salmon returns are up, thanks largely to five years of court-enforced “spill” and recent good ocean conditions.  “Spill” involves pouring some water – and ocean-bound salmon – over the dams, rather than through lethal turbines.  This year’s increased salmon returns are giving us all a little breathing room, but we need Northwest political leadership in order to take advantage of it. Let’s seize the opportunity and solve this problem for once and for all.

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3 Responses to “Salmon, Dams and the Snake River”

  • What a super blog on Salmon, Dams and the Snake River — Read The Dirt !
    by: buy structured settlementon: Wednesday 5th of January 2011
  • A good follow up article would be one that actually addresses these "solutions" instead of vaguely referencing the term within the article. However, still a solid article that exemplifies that urge to protect our local salmon.
    by: Christopher Youngon: Tuesday 15th of November 2011
  • Knowing that wild salmon is endangered, It's sad to know that we couldn't be able to see them in more several years.  I  hope  there will be remedies or action to prevent them more extinct.
    by: Staceyon: Wednesday 30th of January 2013

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