The Snake River dams must be removed

Update on 8/4/2022: Today the Bend Bulletin printed this post I made 2 days ago.

Despite the claim that dams are a form of clean, renewable energy they are being removed in many places across the country due to their lack of cost effectiveness and dramatic negative impacts on ecosystems. Four power generating dams on the Klamath River are slated to be removed next year, the largest dam removal project in US history.  The Bend Bulletin recently published an opinion column stating that dams on the Snake River should not be removed.  Here’s a different viewpoint.

The Columbia River and its tributaries once held one of the world’s greatest runs of anadromous fish, including multiple species of salmon, steelhead, and pacific lamprey.  The Snake River, which joins the Columbia, and its tributaries were the spawning grounds for many of these fish.  Today, these runs are threatened with local extinction.

There are many reasons for the dire outlook for Snake River anadromous fish.  Poor ocean conditions due to global warming, pollution, excessive harvest, and genetic degradation from breeding with hatchery fish all play a role.  The independent scientific consensus, however, is that the lower four dams on the Snake River are the primary issue and that they must come out to avoid losing these fish.

It is true that interests vested in the operation of the dams have produced reports purporting to show that the dams are not the issue.  For decades, the Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and the utility industry have released studies and plans for addressing the collapse of Snake River Basin salmon and steelhead.  The courts have repeatedly stated that these are flawed and ordered corrections, orders that have largely been ignored, leading to a cycle of constant litigation.

In 2020, the State of Washington released a report stating, “Today, Washingtonians stand at a fork in the road with a clear choice: Continue with current practices and gradually lose salmon, orcas, and a way of life that has sustained the Pacific Northwest for eons. Or, change course and put Washington on a path to recovery that recognizes salmon and other natural resources as vital to the state’s economy, growth, and prosperity.”

In May of this year, a study co-authored by scientists from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Idaho Depart of Fish & Game, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Oregon State University, and US Fish & Wildlife, among others, stated that the dams must be breached to save these fish. 

Last month, the White House announced the release of two new interagency draft reports stating that at least some of the dams must be removed along with other actions to “restore the health and abundance of Pacific Northwest salmon”.  These reports also detail steps that must be taken to offset the loss of power generation from the dams while meeting state and Federal clean energy goals.  These reports are drafts and the utility industry is lobbying to have their conclusions changed.  Doing so would make them political, not scientific documents.

Breaching dams will require changes for many.  It will require investments in a variety of areas and collaboration by a wide range of stakeholders.  As the White House report states, however, “the region can continue to reshape its future through strategic investments, ongoing science, and related actions that help ensure a sustainable and resilient basin that better serves all communities in the basin”.

We need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.  Do we value a healthy Columbia River ecosystem?  Do we value anadromous fish and the many benefits they provide to humans and the animals that rely on them as a source of food?  What legacy do we want to leave to future generations?  Do we want to witness the final collapse of what once was a marvel of the natural world?  We know we can make a positive change and include everyone in its benefits.  Will we?

For more on this topic, I recommend this issue of The Osprey and a visit to