Support Builds for Snake River Dam Breaching as Salmon Face Extinction
Time is running out for salmon and steelhead on the northwest river
Before the dams, a juvenile Chinook salmon would aim its shining, paper-thin fins toward the Pacific Ocean and set out for an over one-thousand-mile migration alongside a million of its cousins. About 80 percent survived the journey. Those 800,000 fish would spend several years in the salty expanses, eating smaller ocean creatures and growing plump bodies, destined to return up the rivers to lay their eggs, feed humans and wildlife, and sow the forest floor with ocean nutrients.
Today, only 7,000 spring and summer Chinook salmon make that journey.
Dam crossings, tepid reservoir waters, and an ocean ravaged by climate change have decimated their numbers. About 40 percent of spring and summer Chinook populations from the Snake River are at the threshold for quasi-extinction, meaning they will likely go extinct, according to research from the Nez Perce Tribe. This group of fish is watched closely for its significance for feeding both orca whales and people.
For Snake River coho and sockeye salmon, the outlook is even bleaker. Each year, about 100 individual coho salmon and 46 sockeye salmon survive their migration and return to spawn—less than 1 percent of historic levels.
Breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River is the “centerpiece action” for recovering its salmon and steelhead populations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded in a report released on September 30, 2022. The agency is charged with protecting threatened and endangered species in marine habitats, including five struggling salmon and steelhead stocks on the Snake River. They say that dam breaching needs to happen as soon as possible, in addition to other actions like predator management and habitat restoration.
These recommendations come as political energy builds for breaching Snake River dams. Washington governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray (D) announced a plan to prepare for dam breaching in August. The prior year, Idaho representative Mike Simpson (R) unveiled his support for a dam-breaching process. Meanwhile, the Biden-Harris administration has prioritized Columbia River fish recovery. But the Murray-Inslee recommendations point out that the dams provide energy, transportation, irrigation, and recreation for the surrounding region, and they say that the dams cannot be breached until those benefits are replaced or mitigated.
For the area’s Indigenous people, these first steps toward breaching are long overdue. Their treaty rights guarantee fishing access at “usual and accustomed grounds.” Yet the dams have driven the fish to the brink of extinction, and many important cultural sites are found under the reservoir waters held by the Snake River dams.
“The low returns severely limit how our tribe members can exercise their treaty reserve rights,” says Chairman Samuel Penney of the Nez Perce Tribe. “We’ve stated to the federal government that we expect them to uphold those treaties and the commitment they made to the Nez Perce Tribe in 1855.”
The Nez Perce Reservation lies five miles east of the Snake River, which stretches over 1,000 miles from its origin in the Rocky Mountains, across Idaho, and into the Columbia River in eastern Washington. The river once ran thick with fish, and the population initially declined due to overharvesting and mining. As far back as 1944, damming the Snake River was recognized as “the greatest threat to the maintenance of the Columbia River salmon population,” according to a US Fish and Wildlife report to the Army Corps.
Nonetheless, by the mid-1970s four dams had been constructed in the Washington stretch of the Snake River, an insurmountable barrier for many salmon and steelhead during their migrations out to the ocean and back to their natal streams.
Today, “you can walk miles upstream and not see any fish,” says Jay Hesse, director of biological services for the Nez Perce Tribe. “I’m continually amazed that the salmon can find each other over those large landscapes and spawn.”
The dams pose myriad risks to migrating fish. Many are killed or injured passing through the turbines, and they struggle to make it through the warm, still reservoir waters the dams create. (Their natural migration route would instead take the fish through cold, fast-moving waters.) The dams create choke points where predators like sea lions and pikeminnow can gather to feast on the salmon and steelhead runs. Once the fish make it through this gauntlet, they enter an ocean artificially heated by climate change.
“It’s been long established and recognized that if these dams remain, these fish will disappear,” says Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Washington-based organization Save Our Wild Salmon.
Salmon once spent about one to two days passing through the 140-mile stretch that’s home to four dams. That single section of their migration now takes five to 15 days. And even if the fish don’t die on the migration route, the added stressors and injuries from dams can often lead to delayed mortality, meaning that more fish die in the ocean after they’ve finished their migration.
Yet the dams benefit the surrounding region in ways that can’t be overlooked, the recommendations from Governor Inslee and Senator Murray emphasize: “We are adamant that in any circumstance where the Lower Snake River dams would be breached, the replacement and mitigation of their benefits must be pursued before decommissioning and breaching.”
This means replacing the dams’ 3500-megawatt (MW) energy capacity with other renewable sources, adding new rail and trucking routes for agricultural products currently moved on barges through the dams, and mitigating the loss of the boating recreation economy. The price tag for the benefit replacement process could be between $10.3 billion and $31.3 billion, according to a summary of independent reviews.
The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that manages the Snake River dams’ energy production, warns that a renewable energy transition away from the dams would require “impractically high levels of additional onshore wind, offshore wind, and battery storage.” They say that costs could be increased by the implementation of clean energy policies in Washington and Oregon.
Yet Governor Inslee and Senator Murray’s recommendations say that the energy transition is possible. They argue it’s an “oversimplified binary choice” to say that hydropower from the dams is the only way to preserve reliable renewable energy.
New federal funds could be an important stepping stone for the dam energy transition: “The infrastructure bill that Congress passed last fall and the Inflation Reduction Act passed this summer provide a huge down payment to start making the investments,” says Bill Arthur, chair of the Columbia/Snake River Salmon Campaign for the Sierra Club. He emphasizes that while the changes can’t happen overnight, they’re feasible to achieve.
At the Nez Perce Reservation, the process to replace dam benefits is well underway. The tribe has undertaken an energy transition program called Nimiipuu Energy to produce renewable energy on the reservation. “The goal of Nimiipuu Energy is to develop and build 531 MW of power and energy storage,” says Penney. Achieving that goal would make up for 15 percent of the dams’ current energy capacity.
“Here on our own reservation, we’ve installed solar on some of our government buildings, our housing, our health care, our fisheries offices,” Penney says. The Nez Perce Tribe is partnering with other tribes to develop a “virtual power plant” by creating new renewable energy production across the region. They also plan to harness funds from the Inflation Reduction Act, such as the renewable energy tax credit and other rebate programs, to bolster the energy replacement process.
This transition is necessary because while sectors like energy, irrigation, and shipping can adapt, the salmon are at their limit, Hesse says. “The [Nez Perce] Tribe’s policy position to breach the Lower Snake dams includes the reality to keep local communities and all impacted groups whole,” he explains.
All of the salmon and steelhead on the Snake River are listed under the Endangered Species Act, along with other Columbia River populations, and the government has spent about 38 years and $24 billion to restore their numbers, says Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon. Despite that, “we haven’t recovered a single population for a very long time,” he says. “Let’s put those dollars into a scientifically credible program … rather than continuing to put money in places that clearly aren’t delivering bang for the buck.”
Some of that conservation spending has gone toward restoring habitat downstream of the Snake. Meanwhile, the Snake River supports “pristine, high-quality habitat” throughout Idaho, says Arthur. He adds that the river is generally at higher elevations, where the water can remain at the cool temperatures salmon and steelhead prefer.
Arthur hopes to see the benefit replacements in place and the dams breached “by the end of this decade.” Bogaard agrees: “The timeline that we’ve got to work with is measured in single-digit years if we’re going to be able to act in time to avoid extinction.”
So far, 2022 has offered a brief reprieve for Snake River salmon. The runs are stronger than the dire numbers seen in previous years. This is likely thanks to a legal agreement that required federal agencies to spill water over the top of the dams starting in 2019, providing salmon with a safer migration route. Since salmon often spend a few years in the ocean, the fish now returning are the first that benefitted from the spillover agreement. This summer also saw slightly cooler ocean temperatures, which could have benefitted the fish.
Although 2022’s stronger returns help stave off extinction, they’re still too low to create long-term population recovery, Hesse says.
While Chairman Penney supports the recent momentum for dam breaching, he’s ready to move past the studies and reports: “I was first elected in 1989, so I’ve seen the entire 30 years of how it’s gone through the courts, and we’re still at status quo and the salmon are on the brink of extinction.”