New Federal Plan for Dams in the Pacific Northwest Will Not Restore Endangered Salmon and Steelhead

Lower Monumental Dam, Army Corps of Eningeers


A couple weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Administration released a draft Environment Impact Statement (DEIS) on the Columbia River System’s future operations. In our previous article on this topic, we looked at the document from a higher altitude and did not get too deep into the weeds. This article, on the other hand, takes a closer look at the DEIS–Multiple Objective Alternative 3 and the Preferred Alternative, specifically–and attempts to better contextualize this issue and document. This fact, however, remains: removing the four lower Snake River dams (Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor) would provide the greatest benefit to Snake River salmon and steelhead and may be our last chance at recovering these species to their past numbers. The DEIS Preferred Alternative does not work towards that goal.

Illustration of the four lower Snake River dams that should be removed, Columbia Riverkeeper.

First off, let’s get some things out of the way: dams are impediments to migrating fish; dams fundamentally alter the ecology of salmon habitat; dams do provide certain benefits to local communities and economies; and, with the current societal trend of decarbonizing the power grid, dams and hydropower will be next to impossible to eliminate. There are other factors, such as predation, harvest, ocean conditions, etc, that have contributed to the precipitous decline of the region’s salmonids.

However, dams significantly disrupt a river’s temperature, flow, dissolved gasses, and can encourage the introduction of non-native species–all of which have detrimental effects on salmonids. Specifically, dams have the greatest effect on smolts (juvenile salmon). The reservoirs formed by dams encourage heightened predation by non-native species (such as smallmouth bass) on smolts. The weakened river flow and warmer water temperatures make the out-migration a much more strenuous and perilous endeavor for juveniles. Dams in the Columbia-Snake River watershed have contributed to the listing of 13 species of salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and all four species of Snake River salmonids are listed and face serious risks of extinction.

The Columbia River System (CRS) consists of 14 federally owned dams and reservoirs that play an important role in the region’s electric generation, shipping and agriculture industries, flood mitigation, fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation. In the DEIS, the drafting agencies identified a No Action Alternative, four Multiple Objective Alternatives (MOs), and the Preferred Alternative. Each alternative was analyzed in terms of how it achieved a suite of objectives: Improve Juvenile Salmon; Improve Adult Salmon; Improve Resident Fish; Provide a Reliable and Economic Power Supply; Minimize GHG [greenhouse gas] Emissions; Maximize Adaptable Water Management; Provide Water Supply; and, Improve Lamprey.

Before we look into the DEIS, the terms “spill” and “SAR” must be defined and understood. Spill is when dams release water, so juvenile salmonids can bypass dam turbines and improve their chances of reaching the ocean. Spill measures are not new. Rather, they are widely used–often through court order–and do help improve juvenile salmonids’ downstream migrations. However, after years of implementing spill measures at the many Pacific Northwest dams, no species of salmon or steelhead has been delisted from the ESA or shown any signs of recovery to historic levels. SAR is an abbreviation for smolt-to-adult return ratio; this is a metric used by managers to measure the amount of salmon survive their smolt life stage and return to an end point (usually a CRS dam) as an adult.

Lower Granite Dam, Army Corps of Engineers

DEIS Alternatives

  1. No Action Alternative: would continue the Columbia River System’s current operations–business as usual (the inclusion of a “no action alternative” is required by the National Environmental Policy Act).
  2. MO1: is expected to meet all objectives to varying degrees. However, “overall, the expected degrees of improvements to ESA-listed salmonids was predicted to be less than was desired by the co-lead agencies.”
  3. MO2: prioritizes hydropower production and, “is less effective than the other MOs at meeting the Improve Juvenile Salmon, Improve Adult Salmon, and Improve Resident Fish objectives.”
  4. MO3: among other measures, would breach the four lower Snake River Dams, providing the greatest benefit to Snake River salmon and steelhead (more on MO3 below).
  5. MO4: would provide the highest spill levels among the alternatives and improve downstream passage for adult steelhead and juvenile salmon and decreases hydropower generation more than in the breaching four lower Snake River Dams scenario.
  6. Preferred Alternative: would combine pieces of each MO, seeking to find a balance for all the identified objectives. Generally speaking, this alternative would provide a, “flexible spill operation that spills more for fish passage when power generation is less valuable and spills less when power generation is more valuable.”

For simplicity’s sake, we will take a closer look at the Preferred Alternative and MO3 (which most of the fishing organizations in the region and stakeholders have been advocating for). Breaching the four lower Snake River dams has been a longtime topic of public debate in the Pacific Northwest. On one hand, you have the shipping industry, agriculture, and power generating camp wanting to keep the dams and their regular courses of business operating. And, on the other hand, you have fishing and outdoor recreation sectors, environmentalists, and tribes who have advocated for the breaching of these dams for decades. The pro-breach crowd desperately wants to see the Snake River returned–as best as possible–to its natural state, with thriving salmon runs and strong populations of steelhead and the actual resemblance of a flowing river. According to models in the DEIS MO3 would, “result in improvements to SARs for Snake River Spring/Summer Chinook that range from 14 percent to 140 percent [depending on the model used] relative to the No Action Alternative.” Additionally, under MO3, “long-term water quality would improve in the lower Snake River…and associated potential beneficial effects for recreational, tribal, and commercial fishing.”

Lower Monumental Dam, Army Corps of Eningeers

Economically, MO3 and the breaching of these dams has negative and potential long-term positive impacts. Upon drawdown of the reservoirs and breaching of the dams, Snake River barging and reservoir-based recreation would face immediate and irreversible adverse economic effects. This region would also lose 1,100 aMW of hydropower generation under average water conditions by removing these four dams. Decarbonization of the electric grid is a priority of many Western states, both societally and through legislation, which makes breaching these dams and forgoing their ‘clean energy’ all the more complex and difficult. Removing the four lower Snake River dams would produce long-term economic benefits to the region through a reinvigorated fishing industry as well as the river-based recreation.

As we now know, the drafting agencies rejected breaching the four lower Snake River Dams (MO3) and the alternative with the highest spill levels (MO4) for their Preferred Alternative. “The Preferred Alternative includes several structural measures intended to improve juvenile migration,” including generally increased spill at Columbia and lower Snake River projects, improved transportation measures for juvenile salmon, and measures to address predation at John Day dam. For the Snake River salmon and steelhead, specifically, the Preferred Alternative would result in, “lower (7 percent) to substantially higher (35 percent) SARs for Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon,” and a 28 percent increase in in Snake River steelhead SARs relative to the No Action Alternative (1.8 percent SAR in the No Action Alternative to a 2.3 percent SAR under the Preferred Alternative). Additionally, the survival of juvenile Snake River salmonids, “would be very similar to the No Action Alternative.

Ice Harbor Dam, Army Corps of Engineers

Billions of dollars have been spent trying to recover these fish. Increasing spill rates, improving habitat, constructing fish ladders, operating hatchery programs, you name it, the government has tried it to avoid permanently losing these fish. Yet, none of these measures or combinations thereof have produced tangible improvements for the endangered stocks. Removing the four lower Snake River Dams would almost overnight improve salmonids’ chances of surviving and spawning in the Snake River watershed, and is a balanced option, in the grand scheme of things.

Wild Steelhead Coalition board member Josh Mills sums up the sad state of affairs: “For decades, we’ve seen that the current management regime is failing salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This is why a broad coalition of anglers, politicians, conservationists, NGOs, tribes, and river communities are asking why the four lower Snake River Dams are not seriously being considered for removal before it is too late. Our iconic fish can’t wait decades longer for viable solutions. I don’t want to have a conversation with my kids about why we didn’t do something to save salmon and steelhead when the answer was apparent the whole time.”

In a press release, Joseph Bogaard, Executive Director of Save Our Wild Salmon, wrote: “Salmon and fishing advocates, however, do not see this document or a federal agency-led process as capable of delivering the durable, long-term solution that the people of the Northwest and nation require. Developing an effective plan that truly meets the needs of people, salmon and ecosystems will require the urgent, active and creative engagement of Northwest-based stakeholders, sovereigns, policymakers and citizens.

As is standard with NEPA Environmental Impact Statements, the DEIS will be subject to a period of public review and comment–45 days starting February 28th in this case. If you are from the Columbia-Snake River Basin region, you can attend one of these public hearings: Lewiston hearing March 17th from 4-8pm at the Red Lion Hotel; Kennewick hearing March 18th from 4-8pm at the Red Lion Hotel; Seattle hearing March 19th from 4-8pm at the Hilton Seattle Airport; Spokane hearing March 25th from 4-8pm at the DoubleTree City Center; Kalispell hearing March 26th from 4-8pm at the Red Lion Hotel; or, Portland hearing March 31st from 4-8pm at the Portland Convention Center.

Additionally, you can make your voice heard by submitting comments on this document and future of the Columbia-Snake River Basin. You can submit comments on the alternatives through this link. Also, Save Our Wild Salmon recommends you reach out to your elected officials and advocate for a lasting solution that, “restores abundant, harvestable populations of salmon; protects and invests in the economic vitality of local communities, especially farming and fishing communities; and, continues the region’s legacy of providing reliable, affordable, clean energy.”

Photo Curtesy of Maddie Lewis

All you can do is make your voice heard and advocate for actual, constructive recovery efforts for Columbia-Snake River Basin salmon and steelhead. The Columbia River System is an incredibly complex issue, and this article does not cover all the issues–not even close. For example, there are deeper analyses of the financial issues behind these dams; there are serious implications for the ESA listed Southern Resident Killer Whales; there are tribal rights being eroded; there are concerning issues with hatcheries and open net fish farms on wild fish populations; and, there are regional politics at work. In any event, we hope this article helps you better understand this DEIS and how it does not substantially differ from any of the past plans nor give wild salmon and steelhead opportunities for recovery.

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Federal Agencies Recommend Leaving Four Lower Snake River Dams in Place

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