Let's really talk about taking down those Snake River dams

The merits of dam removal discussed.

There has been an ongoing discussion about the removal of the Lower Snake River dams for many years, in fact, there was opposition to building them in the first place due to concerns about salmon runs. This article examines the pros and cons of dam removal and I think that the pros far outweigh the cons.

Many people see that runs of salmon have been fairly strong during the last 10 years but they fail to realize that these runs are primarily hatchery fish that compete in many ways with the wild fish that are truly in danger of extinction.
The main concerns of those who want to keep the dams revolve around irrigation, transportation and power generation. Those concerns were addressed by a Rand Corporation study in 2002 which found that dam removal would not have a huge negative impact on the regional economy, in fact, it may be beneficial if all consequences are considered.

I don’t think that decisions like this should be based on solely economic reasoning, rather, I think they should be made based on long-term sustainability of natural systems. The decision to breach the four Lower Snake River Dams, though, seems to make economic sense as well as ecological sense.

Let’s really talk about taking down those Snake River dams.
By Daniel Jack Chasan – Crosscut.com





  1. Angela Avatar

    I’m not sure how many of you know, but we are in the process of removing the four dams on the lower Klamath River, which was the third largest producer of salmon after the Sacramento-San Joaquin system and the Columbia-Snake system, supporting summer, fall, and winter steelhead; winter and spring Chinook, coho salmon, chum salmon, coastal cutthroat trout, redband trout, and both green and white sturgeon species.
    The environmental and other review for actions like this take a looongg time, and that is the stage it is in, but it’s exciting for all parties to know they are moving *towards* long-term ecological health of this huge watershed, and to be working together towards that common goal. We did not know back then what we know now about how rivers function. Along with removing the dams, millions and millions of dollars will be spent repairing the damage we did in the last 100 years.

    “Tearing down the dams is expected to cost less than making the improvements necessary to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and Fish and Wildlife Agency regulations, which would require, among other things, the construction of fish ladders and screens. The utility would have to get certification from both states under the Clean Water Act to continue operating the dams, a potentially difficult proposition given the algae problems.”

    “We’ve really looked at this as a business deal, and we believe it is in the best interests of our customers,” said Dean Brockbank, vice president and general counsel for PacifiCorp. “The agreement we have now is a collaborative effort, and we believe it beats all of the alternatives.”

    Honestly, I never thought we would be making this much progress in restoring ecosystem function to large rivers. We will have Chinook salmon in places they haven’t had access to in 100 years. Chinook spawning in the Metolius River and wolves feeding on the carcasses–yeah!

    Removing the Snake River dams is not just about salmon. Salmon are a keystone species that affect the entire food web of the watershed. Salmon bring nutrients thousands of miles from the sea to the headwaters of watersheds; the carcasses are critical for boosting the survival of juvenile salmonids in the stream as well as for feeding untold numbers of other species, many of which drag carcasses onto the land so that they feed the riparian forest and support that community as well. As someone mentioned in a comment, the Snake and Columbia runs are key to the persistence of the Southern Resident Killer Whales here in the Salish Sea. Some of the pod members are estimated to be near 100 years old. They already face challenges related to boat traffic, underwater noise, and toxics in the Puget Sound, and have not yet recovered from the collection of many members of that population for marine parks decades ago. Pacific lamprey populations have also crashed in many of these watersheds and they may have historically provided an important prey for pinnipeds that reduced predation pressure on returning adult salmon. The Transient Killer Whales are dependent on these pinniped populations as food. We could bring the golden bear back to northern California (someday?).

    I assumed that Obama would bring some needed political will towards removing the Snake River dams. I still think it is bound to happen over time, whether in one decade, or two.

  2. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    These dams are a big deal even here in SE Alaska as our troll and sport chinook fisheries, which are a substantial part of our economy and culture, were threatened under the ESA in the mid-1990s due to an estimated catch of something like 3 Snake River fall Chinooks. Fortunately, recent runs have been a little better and jeopardy under the ESA has been deferred to the Pacific Salmon Treaty process (part of the incentive to get Alaska to agree which then also brought conservation benefits from limiting Canadian fisheries as well). I think also more hatchery fish have been counted in the population recently, certainly not a long-term solution – which is to give them a functional river to live in. North-migrating wild chinooks from the Columbia have historically been a very important part of the Southeast Alaska chinook fishery and I believe the upriver fall brights that spawn around Hanford Reach are still usually either the largest or second largest contributing stock in our fishery, depending on the year. The “tules” produced by lower river hatcheries to replace stocks lost to the dams are south migrating and don’t come here much to feed. Grand Coulee Dam was a huge hit and pretty much killed the troll town of Port Alexander on South Baranof Island in the late 30s or early 40s. I’ve spoken with a couple of trollers who began in the 1930s and it sounds like the abundance of chinook salmon in waters here must have been truly phenomenal before the dams.

    1. jdubya Avatar

      If you have never had the chance to visit Grand Coulee, you should. Talk about a show stopper. I don’t know how many miles away you would have to start a fish ladder to get the salmon up and down, but it would be a long long way. Maybe someday they’ll build an artificial river using CCC-like labor to all the restoration of runs but I can’t imagine the cost.

      That said, tearing down the 4 Snake river dams will make money (in the long run), and not cost a dime.

  3. Dan Avatar

    People around Washington are speaking up. More than 50 leaders in E WA and another 120 in W WA have sent letters to Senators Murray and Cantwell asking them to show a little leadership on this issue. Couldn’t hurt to add your voice to the chorus – see http://www.workingsnakeriver.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=106:opportunities-g-political-leadership&catid=36:plans-and-proposals&Itemid=159

    1. jdubya Avatar

      Done, thanks for the link!

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Thanks Dan,

    I hope Senator Patty Murrray will help. She has a tough reelection fight. What she needs to understand that her chances depend almost entirely whether she can fire up her base (which is an easy majority in Washington State if they turn out to vote).

  5. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    Thanks for the link, Dan! I’ll pass it on to the Alaska Trollers Association. Actually, a lot of our trollers who come here to fish (including at least 1 or 2 on the ATA board) live in Washington state. They are definitely people who weigh in on these things whenever they can.

  6. pointswest Avatar

    There is another reason to remove the four dams on the lower Snake. Southern Idaho has water issues…issues like there is not enough water to go around. Farmers have been pumping out of the large Snake River Aquifer since the 70’s but the aquifer began drying up and people with senior water rights have filed law suits. Now Idaho is trying to recharge the aquifer and maintain current levels of irrigation with global warming heating the issue. There is not enough water in the late summer.

    The four dams on the lower Snake are what are called run of the river dams and do not store water. The do greatly reduce the velocity of flow, however, and this has been the reason they have depleted the salmon run. The smolts going down river get lost in the slow backwaters of these four dams since they are not genetically equipped to navigate miles of backwaters. Lawsuits were filed and the remedy was to maintain high springtime flows down the river to flush the smolts through the backwaters and over the dams (I’m sure many on this blog knew this). This requires tremendous about of water.

    So to maintain these dams, Idaho cannot store as much springtime runoff since the water must be sent downstream for the flush…even in drought years that we are probably going to see more of. In effect, these dams waste water…a lot of water.

    Thevdams should be taken out. I’ve read that the Idaho economy would probably do better with the increase in salmon sport fishing than any economic benefits from a Port of Lewiston. They were a mistake and should be removed.

    Captain John C. Fremont reports in his journals that the spring Salmon were once so plentiful at the base of Shoshone Falls (near Twin Falls, ID) that the Bannock and Shoshone fished them by throwing spears aimlessly into the water to strike one by chance and that in some spots, they speared a salmon nearly every through. Imagine what such a salmon fishery would do for Idaho today.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole