Snake River Dam Removal

Ralph Thomas, a well-known salmon angler in the Pacific Northwest, with an ocean-going coho off the coast of Nootka Island.
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Ralph Thomas, a well-known salmon angler in the Pacific Northwest, with an ocean-going coho off the coast of Nootka Island.
Chasing Crazy-Ass Coho
August 1, 2022
Skate or Die: 360 Flashers
August 5, 2022
Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River.

Snake River Dam Removal

Saving Columbia River salmon from extinction is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference. 

By Buzz Ramsey 

It was in 1964 that the fishing closed on the Columbia River for what was once the largest run of salmon, summer chinook. I turned 14 earlier that same year and remember thinking that if fishing must stop to recover salmon, I was OK with it.

Five years later, lower river fisheries targeting spring chinook bound for the Snake and the upper Columbia tributaries were closed too. Sure, we sport anglers were allowed to fish the Columbia west of Bonneville during what was referred to as the “winter season” which ran from Jan. 1 to March 31 but were only allowed to keep steelhead and jack salmon after the March 31 fishing closure. 

Some anglers older than me (not many left) might remember a few years when the season extended into early April for spring chinook, or that we were allowed to keep one summer chinook for a few years should we incidentally catch one while targeting summer steelhead. But for 24 and 29 years respectively, fisheries targeting the Columbia’s spring and summer chinook were closed down.   

Keep in mind that this was long before predation by sea lions or birds was an issue.

The strategy behind allowing sport anglers to target the early portion of the spring chinook run on the lower Columbia is because springers headed for the Willamette and other lower Columbia hatcheries make up much of the early season catch. But make no mistake, river  fisheries and the dependent businesses were paying the price for the ever increasing number of dams that blocked salmon from accessing half of the Columbia River’s historic watershed.   

While the Snake River spring chinook were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1992, by 1995 the entire upriver-bound spring chinook run, both hatchery and wild, amounted to just 10,293 adults passing over Bonneville Dam. At that time everyone, state fish managers and biologists alike, figured the spring chinook run on the Columbia was quickly spiraling toward extinction.

The salmon and people that value them got lucky, since nature gave what was referred to as the “death brood” of out-migrating smolts produced from just 1,130 adults making it over Lower Granite Dam (the eighth dam from the ocean) and into the Snake Basin a much needed break. A near record snow pack and the huge spring runoff that followed spilled most of the young out-migrating smolts over the top of federal dams rather than through the deadly turbines. More luck was in store when the small salmon met a very friendly, nutrient-rich ocean.

In spite of a near record low parent return, the number of spring chinook passing Bonneville Dam in 2001 exceeded 390,000 fish, a record high. This resulted in the first sport fishing season on the lower Columbia targeting upriver-bound spring chinook in 24 years. The big joke at the time was that the fishing was so good and participation so high you couldn’t buy a bag of potato chips west of Bonneville Dam. 

It was the very next year that the sport season for summer chinook re-opened after a 29-year fishing closure.  

It’s significant to note that salmon headed for the Snake River basin, where 70 percent of the remaining salmon habitat the Columbia River watershed is located, were some of the first ever listed under the Endangered Species Act. ESA law required the federal government to develop a plan to recover the native stocks of salmon and steelhead bound for the upper Columbia basin. 

Although it’s our nation’s law, every federal recovery plan, no matter which administration, has failed to model out for recovery. This has left our fishing community, environmental and treaty tribe interests no choice but to litigate. We have won each one of these suits only to watch the next administration put forward another plan that fails to do what’s needed to recover salmon. The absence of a viable federal plan has meant that a federal judge is calling the shots when it comes to managing river flows and spill to help young salmon get to the ocean. 

It’s important to understand that out-migrating smolts, lacking the energy needed to swim any real distance, don’t swim westward to the ocean. What they instead do is allow the spring freshets fueled by snowmelt and rains (flow) to push (back-troll) them downstream to the sea with their noses facing into the current to gather oxygen as they travel. 

When the flow pushes them toward a dam, the current carries them over the top with spilled water, or down through the turbines. The mortality for fish riding over the spillway is 0 to 2 percent. Those fish unlucky enough to be pulled into the turbines suffer a 10 to 12 percent loss. As you might guess, the mortality associated with any one dam isn’t so bad but the cumulative effect of more than three or four dams is devastating to young fish. Smolts that do reach the ocean often suffer delayed mortality due to their energy reserves being severely depleted from having to navigate so many powerhouses. 

Prior to the ESA, we were on the “Pray for Rain” management plan. How the federal judge keeps the mortality associated with Snake River fish having to migrate past multiple dams lower than it would be otherwise is by mandating a certain amount water to be spilled over the top of the dams, regardless of snow pack. This court-ordered spill keeps some of the baby salmon out of the powerhouses and increases the smolt-to-adult return rates.

And while having a federal judge willing to follow the science and mandate spill has bought the fish a little time, it’s not working as overall salmon numbers are continuing their slow path towards extinction. 

What stands in the way of salmon recovering to harvestable abundance is just too many dams. The reason the four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington have been targeted for removal is they offer the least benefit to society and come at the greatest cost to salmon.

Trying to keep these four dams in place while pretending to recover salmon is a failed strategy embraced by our very own government. A government that is bowing to competing interests that promote the idea of giving the salmon everything but what they need: a river that works. The result is that we have spent $19 billion on feeble, failed, and illegal plans to restore salmon while the fish continue to plunge toward extinction. The failed plans have done a better job of protecting the status quo, not salmon and steelhead.

Dam removal will more than double the returns of hatchery and wild steelhead along with spring and summer chinook that inhabit the high elevation tributaries in the Snake basin. Breaching the four lower Snake River dams will also restore 140 miles of a free-flowing Snake River for fall chinook to repopulate.

As you might know, the last big run of salmon in the Columbia River basin, not surprisingly, spawn in the last free-flowing Hanford Reach section of the Columbia. This 30-mile stretch, extending from the backwaters of McNary Dam to Priest Rapids dam, produces an average of 1.1 million fall URB adult chinook into the Pacific Ocean each year. These fish thrive because of having to only navigate four dams. Compare that to the fall chinook that inhabit the current free-flowing section of the Snake River above the dams which might contribute 50,000 fall chinook to the ocean each year, and you get a pretty good picture of what four fewer dams would yield.

The power produced by the dams on the lower Snake River is often seen as the biggest road block to removing them. The reality is that these four dams only produce 3 to 4 percent of the region’s power and most of that is in the spring when the region is flush with hydropower from spring runoff.

As a comparison, consider that the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant produced 1,100 megawatts (MW) of electricity annually before being abandoned in January of 1993. The Snake River dams currently produce an average of 933 MW of power each year, according to a 2019 Bonneville Power Administration analysis. Wind and solar currently produce 19 times as much power as the four dams on the lower Snake River. 

In addition, the Bonneville Power Administration that markets the power produced by these and other federal dams is currently selling power on the open market for $35 dollars a MW hour. While wind and solar are sold for $25 dollars a MW hour. What does this say about how important these salmon killing dams are to the region’s energy future?

According to the Northwest Energy Coalition, we can remove the Snake River dams and still provide Northwest communities with power via renewable energy, efficiency technologies, and by increasing power storage capacity. This is not to mention the explosive growth of wind and solar power expected to come online over the coming decade.

Water for irrigation doesn’t have to be pumped from a reservoir. Like many other places around the Northwest water can be pumped from a free-flowing Snake River too.     

The myth often spoken by the opposition is that Portland and other downriver communities will flood if we remove the dams on the lower Snake River. The reality is that these dams have no real water storage capacity. The lower Snake River dams are what’s known as run-of-the-river dams, meaning they only release as much water as comes in every day.   

Barge shipments from the Lewiston-Clarkston area, currently subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of $37,000 dollars per barge load, can be shipped by truck and rail. Improving rail and highway infrastructure to this area can ease congestion and make the communities of Lewiston and Clarkston more competitive as compared to the current highway system that favors Spokane.  

Idaho congressman Mike Simpson has studied this issue intensely and began a serious regional discussion with his proposal to take care of everyone that might be negatively affected by dam removal. His pitch opened my eyes about what is possible. Reviewing his recover-salmon-with-no-losers plan promises to keep whole everyone that might be affected. 

In addition, removing these four outdated dams will be as big or bigger of a jobs program as when these salmon-killing dams were originally built. Today, Washington’s powerful U.S. Senator Patty Murray has teamed up with Washington Governor Jay Inslee, commissioning a study on the actions needed to modernize our transportation, energy and irrigations systems should the dams be breached. Their report on replacing these benefits should be released as you are reading this article.

As you may know water temperatures on the Snake and Columbia River have increased over the past several decades to the point it is killing endangered salmon and steelhead, including sockeye salmon. Scientists that have studied the issue cite Environmental Protection Agency modeling that show the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River will reduce river temperatures by an average of 6.3 degrees during the summer and early fall time frame.

We have the expertise and seniority in Congress and the administration to make this happen now. Our leaders cannot let salmon that inhabit 70 percent of the remaining habitat in the Columbia River basin go extinct. Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness Area and its Salmon River were set aside, in part, as a high elevation habitat and cold water refuge to support wild salmon and steelhead, providing resiliency in a future, changed climate. 

The most and best salmon habitat that remains in the Columbia watershed resides in Snake basin. Breaching those dams would set in motion one of the greatest river restorations ever, opening free-flowing access to some 5,500 miles of pristine salmon-spawning habitat, the best remaining salmon incubator in the lower 48 states and one that will remain relatively cool and productive even as our planet warms.

The Snake River holds some of the PNW’s finest salmon habitat.

State and federal elected officials, Tribal and leaders of both political parties are recognizing these dams need to be removed. Even though it’s the right thing to do, they need to hear from fisherman; not just from those that want to maintain the status quo. It’s time — past time really — to demand that our political leaders do what’s needed to restore these fish to abundance.  

In many cases, the four dams on the lower Snake River are killing too many fish to allow fishing, just like this year, when fishing for spring chinook on the lower Columbia closed at the end of the day on April 6. 

Join the growing number of anglers and concerned citizens in demanding that we implement the measures needed to restore these fish to abundance. Think of your sons, daughters and the generations that follow. As for me, I’m hoping that restoring salmon and sport fisheries will capture the imagination of our young people such that they will choose fishing over other activities.   

Make no mistake: saving Columbia River salmon from extinction is the biggest natural resource issue facing our nation today and now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference. 

If you value salmon, go to the website below and sign the fisherman’s petition that will reach our senators. Then pass it on to everyone you know who loves these fish. If you are passionate about this opportunity call or write your U.S. Senator and Congressman, too.

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