Earlier today, a long-awaited federal report on the prospect of removing the four lower Snake River Dams was released, offering little hope for the watershed’s endangered wild salmon and steelhead. The federal agencies rejected the removal of these dams, despite broad scientific and stakeholder consensus that doing so may be the only way to recover Snake River salmonids. The Snake River which flows through Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon is the largest tributary of the Columbia River and once supported thriving wild salmon runs. However, throughout the 20th century, dams began going up on the Snake river to facilitate a shipping industry and give these inland Western states access to markets through the Pacific.

Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River

As you could have guessed, these dams immediately had a detrimental effect on salmon runs. Salmon and steelhead runs on the Snake River are seeing a fraction–less than 2%–of historic returns, and many genetically distinct subspecies are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. After years of work and billions of dollars spent on recovering the watershed’s native salmonids, one would think it is time to take a serious look at these four lower Snake River dams: Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam (order ascending upstream). One would think.

There was overwhelming public and scientific support for removing these dams. Save Our Wild Salmon wrote, “hundreds of federal, state, tribal and independent scientists have concluded that removing the four lower Snake River dams is the best and perhaps only means to protect these fish from extinction and recover healthy populations.” Other groups, such as Trout Unlimited and Wild Salmon Center, agree and advocate for the removal of these four lower Snake River dams. These fish are too important to local economies, ecosystems, and Native Americans to lose them. Additionally, studies have concluded that recovered salmon and steelhead runs on the Snake River would be more valuable than the cost of replacing the lost power from removing the dams.

Photo from Spokane Falls TU

Despite these factors and hundreds of thousands of voices supporting the removal of the four lower Snake River dams, including Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown, the three federal government agencies (Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Administration) rejected dam removal altogether in their draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The agencies identified a No Action Alternative, several other alternatives, and their Preferred Alternative, which leaves the dams operational and increases spill rates to help migrating salmon.

Earthjustice attorney, Todd True, said, “It is time for all of us to work together to forge a comprehensive solution that restores abundant salmon, invests in communities, and ensures clean, affordable power into the future. This [DEIS] does little to move us in that direction.”

Wild Steelhead Coalition posted on Instagram today and wrote, “Unfortunately, as expected, [the DEIS] opts to ignore scientific evidence and embrace the expensive status quo that fails fish recovery and the communities that depend on abundant salmon and steelhead.”

In any event, this report will be most likely be challenged in court, like previous plans for the region’s hydroelectric systems. Also, this DEIS will be subject to public comment, but as we’ve seen with Pebble Mine and the Clean Water Act, the Federal Government does not seem to pay much attention to these democratic activities.

This DEIS is another roadblock for salmon and steelhead recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest, but groups like Trout Unlimited, Wild Salmon Center, Save Our Wild Salmon, and Earthjustice will keep working towards recovering these resilient fish.

Stay tuned for a deeper dive into the Columbia River System Operations DEIS in the coming days.

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