News Articles

Important articles published by national and regional news outlets related to wild salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

By Keith Ridler
Nov 26, 2020

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A unique population of salmon that for thousands of
years has been reproducing in one of Idaho’s wildest places experienced
a small increase in adults returning to spawn this year.

But the number of chinook salmon returning to the Middle Fork of the
Salmon River and its tributaries is just a tiny fraction of historic
numbers, experts said.

“More is better, but it’s still abysmal numbers,” said Russ Thurow, a
research fisheries scientist with the U.S. Forest Service based in the
small city of Salmon. “We’re bouncing around just above extinction."

A survey completed in September of spawning beds found that about 900
chinook salmon, which can surpass 20 pounds, returned this year
compared to 320 last year.

Most of the basin is protected in the Frank Church River of No Return
Wilderness. It contains about 460 miles of still pristine spawning
habitat that in the 1800s experienced an annual return of an estimated
150,000 adult salmon.

Spawning bed surveys from the 1950s and 1960s led to an estimate of
nearly 50,000 salmon returning those years before the runs plummeted
following the completion of dams on the Snake River.

Middle Fork Salmon River chinook salmon have a pristine habitat, are
not influenced by salmon hatcheries and are rarely caught by anglers
based on studies that track tagged salmon. That isolates dams used for
hydropower as the main problem limiting the fish’s recovery.

Salmon from Idaho must pass through four dams on the Snake River in
eastern Washington and four more on the Columbia River.

Throughout the Columbia River Basin, more than $16 billion has been
spent over the past three decades trying to save salmon and steelhead.

In a decision criticized by environmentalists, the U.S. government in
July announced that four huge dams on the Snake River in Washington
state will not be removed.

“Until we do a better job of reducing those harms caused by the hydro
systems, and especially for Snake River fish, I think that we’re going
to continue to spend a lot of money and not deliver results,” said
Joseph Bogaard of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition.

By Lynda Mapes

Nov. 29, 2020

2020.SeaTimes.SnakeRiverBUFFALO EDDY, Snake River, Idaho — Sunlit mist drifted across basalt cliffs and hillsides aglow in a soft pelage of summer grass, turned gold now with autumn. The river churned and swirled, and its voice was loud with the first rains of the season.

A bighorn sheep picked its way over the hills, and petroglyphs on the basalt along the riverbanks came into view — including images of bighorn sheep, pecked into the rocks thousands of years ago, by ancestors of the Nez Perce, native people of these lands and waters.

As the tour boat turned and headed downstream, the bucking current squeezed by Hells Canyon suddenly lost its strength. The sparkling waves dulled in water gone still. The boat had returned to the uppermost reaches of the reservoir at Lewiston, Idaho, impounded by the barrier of Lower Granite Dam in Washington, 39 miles away.

The Nez Perce are at the center of a decades-long battle to remove this dam, and three others on the Lower Snake River. In many tribal members’ lifetimes, dams have transformed the Columbia and Snake from wild rivers to a hydropower behemoth and shipping channel — despite fishing rights reserved by their ancestors guaranteed in the treaty of 1855.

The tribe does not agree with a recently completed assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies that essentially cemented the status quo on the dams. “The four concrete barriers on the lower Snake River have had — and continue to have — a devastating impact on the fish and on tribal people,” Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee, stated in a recent letter to agency officials.

Read the full story here with photos at the Seattle Times website...

By Lynda V. Mapes and Hal BerntonLSR.Dam.Photo
Nov 22, 2020

From reintroduction of the grizzly bear to its wild North Cascades redoubt to attacking climate change, a wide range of environmental policies could see a new direction in the Pacific Northwest under a Biden administration.

For starters, government and nonprofit policy leaders say they are looking forward to a return to science as a basis for environmental policymaking. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than on climate warming.

Gov. Jay Inslee has championed Washington climate and energy policies sharply at odds with a president who dismissed the threats posed by greenhouse gas emissions in a warming world.

Inslee now has a powerful ally in President-elect Joe Biden. Biden’s campaign platform calls for dramatically stepping up a U.S. transition away from fossil fuels to set the nation on a path to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury, which means that whatever carbon pollution is emitted into the atmosphere is offset by other measures. And, since the election, there has been speculation that Inslee will be asked to join the new Democratic administration to help Biden pull off this dramatic course correction in climate policy.

Biden would need approval from Congress to authorize $2 trillion in spending he proposes to help the nation move off fossil fuels and reach an interim goal of removing greenhouse gas emissions from power generation by 2035.  

Passage of such spending or other climate legislation could be difficult even with a Democratic majority in control of the Senate and an even tougher task if Republicans are able to win runoff races in Georgia and retain control of the upper chamber.

From his first day in office, Biden also is expected to use executive orders to take a wide range of measures, including putting the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement on climate, developing new automotive fuel economy standards weakened by President Donald Trump and increasing regulations to control the release of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — during oil and gas production.

Biden also will try to block a Trump administration effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to oil exploration, which included a post-election announcement of the beginning of a process that could result in lease sales of land before Inauguration Day.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement released Nov. 16, called the Trump administration action, a “last ditch effort” that she predicted would not withstand court scrutiny.

Biden has said he would make a big push to expand wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy, which would add federal support to a movement already underway in Washington as utilities scramble to move off of coal and natural gas generation to comply with legislative deadlines set in Washington for 2045.

Biden also is expected to continue the bipartisan support that was found even during the Trump administration for investing federal dollars in hopes of developing a new generation of nuclear energy plants.

In October, Bellevue-based TerraPower, chaired by Bill Gates, received a $80 million federal Energy Department grant, the first installment of what is intended to be a seven-year effort to test, license and build its first advanced nuclear plant, and possible U.S. locations include a site near Richland, where Energy Northwest now operates the state’s only commercial nuclear plant.

The Biden administration also is expected to revive the Environmental Protection Agency’s Obama-era opposition to the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.

Developers have proposed an open-pit copper, gold and molybdenum mine in southwest Alaska that has faced fierce opposition from Bristol Bay fishermen, many of whom are from Washington, who fear that salmon would be put at risk.

Biden, in an August statement, said the Bristol Bay region is “no place for a mine. The Obama-Biden administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.”

Here are other issues likely to see a push for change under Biden:


Biden could reinstate the protection for roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, the nation’s largest, with some of its last and largest tracts of old growth.

Forest conservationists said they also hope for policies that emphasize carbon sequestration in the management of public forests, and economic incentives for rural communities to retain and protect forests.

“We need to start utilizing forests for what they can be,” said Peter Goldman, director and managing attorney at the nonprofit Washington Forest Law Center. “Carbon storage.”

Rivers and dams

Salmon activists say they want to see federal legal action dropped or overturned that challenges state authority to regulate temperature in the Columbia and Snake rivers. A renewed effort to take out dams on the Klamath River and to develop federal support for dam removal on the Lower Snake River is already underway.

“One of the best things we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change is restore healthy and free-flowing rivers,” said Bob Irvin, president of the nonprofit American Rivers. “We are thrilled Klamath dam removals are going forward and hopeful that we will see progress in moving toward removal of the four Lower Snake River dams.

“It has become very clear there are alternatives for the energy they generate and the transportation they provide, but there is no alternative for the salmon or the tribes and communities depending on salmon for eons.”

Dam proponents are willing to put all options on the table for salmon recovery, said Kurt Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Northwest River Partners, an association of utilities, ports and other businesses. But he urged that any solution has to look beyond the Snake Basin to the broader Pacific Coast recovery problem, especially climate change. Climate warming, he noted, and its effects on the ocean is a threat so dire some scientists warn Snake River salmon could be extinct within a few decades.

Endangered species

The Biden administration could reverse the withdrawal of federal Endangered Species Act protection for the gray wolf; reconsider listing for the wolverine; restart reintroduction of the grizzly bear to the North Cascades region; and restore effects due to climate change as criteria for listing and critical habitat designation.

Robb Krehbiel, Northwest representative for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said the Trump administration’s on-again, off-again stance on grizzly reintroduction exemplified policymaking that was not based in science.

“This is the last native carnivore still missing from the Cascades,” Krehbiel said. “Bringing the grizzly back home would just be huge to restoring this ecosystem.”

The bears help maintain open, alpine meadows surely as a rototiller, as they dig in the ground with their big claws and muscular backs for insects, roots and small mammals, such as marmots and ground squirrels, said Bill Gaines, an independent biologist based in Leavenworth, who has worked on grizzly recovery since the 1980s.

Grizzly reintroduction also would restore the natural balance of animal life in the North Cascades with likely cascading effects, Gaines said.

In Yellowstone National Park, for instance, reintroduction of grizzly bears and wolves resulted in a redistribution of elk from riverbanks, allowing vegetation and birds to come back to those areas. Similar effects could happen if the grizzly were recovered in one of the few areas suited to them in the Lower 48: the more than 6.5 million acres of wild, open area comprised of the North Cascades National Park and parts of several national forests, Gaines said.


Biden could restore full protection for birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to include fines against industries for unintentional harm, such as oil spills. The more than 100-year-old treaty has been repeatedly attacked by the Trump administration.


Under a Biden administration, the government could increase federal funding and cost-sharing for infrastructure to protect clean water in Puget Sound, including storm water and wastewater projects, and reinstate limits on water pollution implemented by fish-consumption standards devised by Washington state and tribes.

“I have been around this fish consumption issue for 20 years of my life and I did it to protect my tribe from contamination,” said Russell Hepfer, vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal council, and a member of the state Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership. “We just took two dams down on the Elwha River. What good does opening 70 miles of habitat do if salmon have to swim through poison to get there?”

He supports reinstating limits on water pollution supported by Washington state and tribes but recently overturned by the Trump administration.


Biden could reopen the issue of noise created by Navy training flights over Olympic National Park and the effects of Growler overflights on communities and endangered southern resident orcas.

Washington state has sued over a 2019 Navy decision to increase by roughly 33% the number of EA-18G Growlers operations from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, which has alarmed and angered some residents on Whidbey and on the San Juan Islands, as well as the Olympic Peninsula.

“We need to take a look at how to change operations and not fly over Olympic National Park and look at (effects on) people and orca in Puget Sound,” said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

Above all, he said, he looks forward to professional and permanent agency directors that base decision-making on the rule of law, science and respect for the public process to make progress on protecting the environment, a sentiment echoed by others.

“I am just glad we are talking about hopes for the future and transformational change now, instead of holding the line and trying to stop bad activities,” said Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound program director for the nonprofit Washington Environmental Council. “We have a lot of work to do but that is a lot healthier place to start.”


Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2515 or; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes. Lynda specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history, and Native American tribes.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or; on Twitter: @hbernton.

Sockeye Salmon Low Return 65588By Keith Ridler
October 29, 2020

A meager return of sockeye salmon to central Idaho this year despite high hopes and a new fish hatchery intended to help save the species from extinction has fisheries managers trying to figure out what went wrong.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game plans to form a working group to understand why only 27 of 660,000 juvenile fish raised in the hatchery and released in central Idaho in 2018 survived the two-year, 1,800-mile roundtrip to the ocean and back to return as adults. Fisheries managers expected about 800.

The working group will “look at possible mechanisms that could have contributed to the poor survival,” said John Powell of Fish and Game. The working group is expected to be formed in November.

Powell said the young fish showed good survival rates as they swam down the Salmon River to the Snake River to the Columbia River and to the ocean.

Things looked good for the return trip as well.

“We do know that environmental conditions were favorable while the (adult) sockeye were migrating back from the ocean,” he said.

That would appear to indicate, he said, that significant losses occurred in either the Columbia River estuary or the Pacific Ocean.

Powell said adults that did return to Idaho tended to be smaller this year, an indication that ocean conditions might not have been favorable.

On a more positive note, 125 sockeye produced in Redfish and Pettit lakes by spawning adults and reared in the wild returned this year. Officials estimate the number of those juvenile fish, called natural-origin fish, leaving the two lakes in 2018 to be about 30,000. Sockeye salmon typically spend two years in the ocean.

Powell said natural-origin fish survive at greater rates than hatchery-origin fish. But hatchery fish surviving at a rate 30 times below natural-origin fish is much worse than typical.

An estimated 150,000 sockeye at one time returned annually to central Idaho, and Redfish Lake, near the small town of Stanley, was named for the abundant red-colored salmon that spawned there. Federal officials say the run declined starting in the early 1900s due to overfishing, irrigation diversions, dams and poisoning, eventually teetering on the brink of extinction in the early 1990s. The fish were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1991.

An elaborate hatchery program that tracks the genetics of individual fish was started in the 1990s to save the species, including raising brood stock that never enter the wild and help produce future generations. Those fish are raised at the Eagle Fish Hatchery in southwestern Idaho and at another hatchery at NOAA Fisheries’ Manchester Research Station in Port Orchard, Washington. The dual system is intended to prevent the loss of the species if a catastrophe occurs at one of the hatcheries.

Officials most recently started using a new hatchery in southeastern Idaho, the $13.5-million Springfield Fish Hatchery, to raise sockeye salmon for release in central Idaho. That hatchery is intended to eventually increase the number of young sockeye released into the wild to more than a million.

For the first time in 2017, all the young fish released came from that hatchery. But only 16% survived the trip from central Idaho to Lower Granite Dam in western Washington. Many of the fish died not long after being released into Redfish Lake Creek.

Biologists determined the young fish died because they couldn’t acclimate to the hard water in the creek after being raised in the soft water at the Springfield Fish Hatchery.

So, in spring 2018 and 2019, biologists first let the young fish acclimate at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley that has medium-hard water.

It appeared to work as a good number of the 2018 fish successfully headed downstream, raising hopes of a good return this year. That was dashed when only 27 adult fish came back.

Of the 125 natural-origin fish that did make it back this year, genetic sampling showed that 38 came from Pettit Lake and 87 from Redfish Lake. One of the Pettit Lake fish died in captivity, and the remaining 37 were released into Pettit Lake to spawn naturally.

All 87 fish from Redfish Lake were taken to the Eagle Fish Hatchery to be artificially spawned along with the 27 hatchery-origin fish, a process that’s been going on this month.

Meanwhile, biologists have released 894 hatchery-raised adult sockeye into Redfish Lake to spawn naturally. Another 101 hatchery-raised adult sockeye were released into Pettit Lake to bolster the 37 natural-origin fish released there. The young fish they produce will remain in the lakes for one to three years before heading to the ocean.

The number of fish returning to central Idaho has fluctuated widely over the last three decades. From 1991 to 1999, only 23 fish returned to central Idaho. In 2014, the program reached its peak with more than 1,500 adult fish making it back.

But in 2015, about 90% of the adult sockeye salmon returning to the Columbia River Basin died due to high water temperatures. Only 91 adult sockeye made it to Idaho, with many of those trapped in Washington after the magnitude of the unfolding disaster became clear.

Numbers rebounded following that until 2019, when only 17 made it back, followed by this year’s 152.

“It’s definitely encouraging to see the number of returns increase from last year,” Powell said. “Last year was a very low return. But based on what we’re seeing this year, it makes it difficult to set expectations for next year.”

dam.lsr1Ken Olsen
October 20, 2020

After two Michigan dams collapsed in May – inundating homes, businesses, and threatening a chemical plant and a Superfund site – a Columbia University research team warned the failures are a preview of coming disasters. A lot of them.

“Two dams down, a few thousand more to go,” Upmanu Lall and Paulina Concha Larrauri wrote in a New York Times op-ed days after the disaster.

There are more than 90,000 dams in the United States, many of which are old, poorly maintained, and vulnerable to large floods and earthquakes that weren’t taken into account when they were built decades ago. Some 15,600 are classified as high-hazard-potential dams, meaning people will probably be killed if the structure fails. And more than 2,300 of these high-risk dams are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. 

States reported 250 dam failures and 539  “incidents” where dams were at risk of failing between January 2010 and April 2020, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO). That includes the 2015 collapse of the Semmes Lake Dam at Fort Jackson, S.C., that contributed to two deaths and caused millions of dollars in damage. In 2019, Vietnam War veteran Kenny Angel was swept away after Spencer Dam in Nebraska was breached. His body has never been recovered. Michigan’s dual dam failure was triggered by floodwaters overwhelming the Edenville Dam near Midland, sending a surge downstream that then took out Sanford Dam. The list goes on.

“We have a national infrastructure crisis,” Lall says. It’s a matter of time until there’s a catastrophic dam collapse that kills people and damages important downstream infrastructure such as bridges, highways, hospitals and water treatment plants. The bottom line, Lall and other experts say, is that the nation needs to provide more money to repair essential dams – and remove those that are no longer economically viable. 

“The biggest thing is, if you can’t maintain it, you have to drain it,” says Charles Karpowicz, a dam safety engineer who worked for the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

D-graded Dams have long powered U.S. factories, stored irrigation and drinking water, and made barge transportation possible on the Mississippi and other rivers. The Tennessee Valley Authority launched an ambitious dam-building program in the South in the 1930s to promote economic development. The dam-building spree in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River basin provided construction jobs during the Depression and electricity for the aluminum smelters and nuclear reactors that helped win World War II.

Cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas owe much of their existence to dam systems that capture and divert water hundreds of miles. Denver alone depends on approximately two dozen dams, says Del Shannon, senior vice president of Schnabel Engineering and vice president of the U.S. Society on Dams. But the nation isn’t taking care of these vital structures. “We put them in the ground and forget about them,” Shannon says. “And they are crumbling.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given dams a “D” since issuing its first Infrastructure Report Card in 1998. The only change: the number of problem dams and the cost of fixing them has skyrocketed. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates it needs $19.6 billion to address its deficient dams. At the current investment rate, these repairs would take more than 50 years to complete, the Corps confirms. As sobering: the Corps is responsible for less than 1 percent of the nation’s dams. The cost of rehabilitating all of the known dam problems in the United States could exceed $80 billion.

Public and private hydropower dams, including the pair that failed in Michigan, are licensed by the federal government. Every state except Alabama also has its own dam safety program. California’s is considered one of the best. Yet dam experts were surprised by the 2017 spillway failure at the Oroville Dam, which at 770 feet is the nation’s tallest dam. Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated and the federal government paid more than $1 billion for emergency repairs for something Lall says was preventable. An independent investigation of the Oroville incident concluded that the spillway defects – including problems with the concrete and the underlying bedrock – were known almost as soon as the dam was completed in 1968 and accepted as an issue that merely required ongoing repairs. 

Meanwhile, there is increasing development downstream from dams. That means structures that were built in the middle of nowhere – and therefore considered low-risk – have since become high-hazard-potential dams. 

More than half the nation’s dams are privately owned. The owners, which include municipalities and public utilities, are responsible for safety and upkeep. That’s a big challenge because a private entity – say, the homeowners association for a lakeside development – may not make money from the dam associated with the project, says Mark Ogden, a civil engineer with ASDSO. 

It can also be difficult to get owners to do the necessary work on dams designed with a revenue stream in mind, Ogden says. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked Boyce Hydro’s license to operate the Edenville Dam in September 2018 after years of unsuccessfully trying to get the owner to upgrade its dams. 

After the dams collapsed, the principal owner filed for bankruptcy, blaming regulators for the problems, according to the news website Michigan Live. But others think dam regulations were too lax. “From what I know, regulators and politicians are too lenient on dam owners,” Karpowicz says. “There are thousands of unsafe dams that should be removed because the owners have not repaired them in a timely fashion.”

Removal More and more unprofitable or outdated dams are being removed, says Boise-based hydropower economist Tony Jones, who worked for two Republican Idaho governors and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. “Dams are like any tool. They get old. And when a private utility decides to get rid of an asset such as a dam, it’s a sign something is truly wrong with it.”

More than 1,700 U.S. dams have been taken out since 1912, most in the past 30 years, according to the nonprofit American Rivers. The world’s largest project involved removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in Olympic National Park in 2011 and 2014, respectively. Elsewhere, PacifiCorp has been removing four of its Klamath River dams in southern Oregon and northern California. In recent years, the company has taken out dams on Oregon’s Sandy and Hood rivers as well as the White Salmon River in Washington state. In many cases, dam owners conclude it’s less expensive to remove the dam than add fish ladders and make other changes required to relicense the facilities.

In fact, fish issues and economics fuel one of the most high-profile dam controversies in the western United States. Steve Pettit has fought for removal of the four Lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington and northern Idaho since soon after he returned from a 13-month tour as a helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Idaho. He continued that battle during his 32-year career as a fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The dams, opposed by the Eisenhower administration, were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s by the Corps of Engineers with the promise of turning Lewiston, Idaho, into a thriving inland seaport 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

“I read the transcripts from the congressional hearings in the ’40s and ’50s,” Pettit says. “Proponents said Lewiston would become the size of Seattle. Fishery experts testified that if all four dams were completed, salmon and steelhead would be extinct within 40 to 50 years.”

The economic boom faded after dam construction was completed, and Lewiston has the lowest economic growth rate of any city in Idaho since the 1970s, Jones says. Wild salmon and steelhead are on the cusp of extinction because of the toll dams take on the fish, particularly young smolts migrating to the ocean where they spend up to five years before returning to the place they were born to spawn.

“The only chance these fish have is for the four Lower Snake River dams to come out,” Pettit says. Wild salmon returned to the Elwha River six months after the dams were removed, he adds, and have returned to other Pacific Northwest rivers after dams were removed.

Before the 20th-century dam-building spree began, the Columbia-Snake system produced 16 million to 20 million chinook, coho, sockeye and chum salmon – more than any other watershed in the world. The Snake River, largest tributary to the Columbia River, produced nearly half of those fish. Chinook salmon swam all the way to northeastern Nevada, where they fed miners trying to strike the mother lode during the 1800s. There were even two salmon canneries in Weiser, Idaho, near Boise, Jones says.

Now, “the wild runs are circling the toilet bowl of extinction,” Pettit says. “Some are down to a hundred fish. Wild sockeye is a museum piece.”

Fishing guides and communities along the Snake and Clearwater rivers are struggling. “A study 15 years ago showed bringing salmon and steelhead back to Idaho is worth $300 million a year,” Pettit says. “It’s a great loss to the economy of these small river towns.” 

Third-generation fishing guide Toby Wyatt of Clarkston, Wash., says at some point he expects he’ll have to find a new line of work as wild salmon and steelhead disappear. And while he supports dam removal and other changes to help wild fish, he also says the region’s hydro complex has become part of the landscape and an
important source of jobs. 

Pettit’s other concern: an enormous amount of silt that was carried downriver before the Lower Granite Dam was built now settles at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater near Lewiston, raising the river level and increasing the odds that a major flood would overtop levees and inundate the city. “If we had a flood like we had in 1974 – or larger – there would be 3 feet of water in downtown,” Pettit says.
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which markets electricity from the Northwest’s federal hydropower dams and is responsible for covering the costs of the turbines and other power infrastructure, has spent $16 billion unsuccessfully attempting to restore wild salmon and steelhead and strongly opposes dam removal. But Jones says the economic case for taking out the Lower Snake River dams is overwhelming. The amount of wheat and wood products shipped by river barge from Lewiston to the West Coast has declined, and half of the power generated by the four lower Snake dams is produced from March to June when it’s not needed for winter heating or summer air conditioning.

The four dams are among the most expensive to operate in the BPA system, and three of the four will need turbine replacements in the coming years that could cost $1 billion, Jones says. “If the four Lower Snake River dams were run by a private company, they would get a backhoe up there today and tear them down. Every minute you keep them is a hole in your balance sheet.”

He adds, “Why would you let salmon go extinct for dams that aren’t competitive even without the fish recovery cost?” 

BPA is the most heavily leveraged utility in the country. Its hydropower rates can’t compete with less expensive solar and wind power, Jones says. And when their power contracts expire in 2028, many may not reup with BPA, forcing the agency to raise its rates and potentially lose more customers. 

BPA says these assertions are inaccurate. The Lower Snake River dams are profitable and among BPA’s lowest-cost power sources, says Doug Johnson, senior BPA spokesman. And although the dams’ turbines are nearing the end of their design life, BPA does not plan to replace them as long as they remain in good condition – a cost saving practice that has worked well at other area dams.

“When people continue to mischaracterize the costs associated with, and the value of, the hydropower generated by the lower Snake River Dams, it does not advance the conversation about where these facilities fit into the Northwest’s economic and environmental future,” Johnson says.

Coming failure Although he believes the economic and scientific case for taking out the Snake dams is indisputable, Pettit doubts the issue will be resolved in time to save the remaining wild salmon. “When I started fly fishing, I caught 400 to 500 steelhead a year,” says Pettit, who releases his fish back to the river. “Last year I caught two. I doubt I’ll even buy a steelhead tag this year.” 

Meanwhile, dam experts worry that the public attention and support for funding adequate dam maintenance will fade despite the fatal dam failures and near-misses in recent years. “I hope the incidents that recently occurred in Michigan will raise awareness,” Ogden says. “History shows it will lose momentum.” 

Karpowicz agrees. “We should expect we’ll be seeing more dam failures.” 


Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.
In addition to the danger posed by dam failures, some 50 people drown in fishing, boating and swimming accidents each year because of safety problems at dams, many of them abandoned. Learn more about dam safety issues in your region at

Coalition of fishing and environmental groups indicate they will file suit over federal government’s Snake and Columbia river plans

1Mccoy.seattle.outBy Eric Barker
Oct 24, 2020 

A coalition of environmental and fishing groups signaled Friday they plan to return to court in an effort to invalidate the federal government’s latest salmon and dams plan.

The groups, which include the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, National Wildlife Federation and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue to the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration. They claim the government’s recently completed plan to operate dams and reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia rivers violates several provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

The court-ordered plan that was finalized in September relies on spilling water at the dams to help juvenile fish on their way to the ocean. But it also gives the agencies the ability to divert more water through hydroelectric turbines when electricity demand, and thereby prices, are high.

An environmental impact statement associated with the plan explored the idea of breaching the four lower Snake River dams and found that action would improve conditions for threatened and endangered wild strains of salmon and steelhead. However, the agencies also said that breaching would be too costly, since it would end barge transportation on the river and reduce hydropower generation.

The environmental and fishing groups, along with the Nez Perce Tribe and state of Oregon, successfully challenged five previous plans and said the latest plan differs little from those earlier efforts.

“The oversight of the federal courts has been critical to ensure that our agencies and political leaders commit to salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin,” said Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. “Restoring the magnificent runs of salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers remains one of the National Wildlife Federation’s highest priorities.”

The federal agencies and supporters of the four lower Snake River dams and the greater Columbia River hydropower system were critical of the resumption of litigation and said it runs counter to calls for regional collaborative salmon recovery talks. Earlier this month, the governors of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana announced their intention to convene collaborative talks on salmon recovery. Some of the groups that said they plan to sue the government had also lobbied for the talks.

Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Corps, said the government’s plan, known as a record of decision, should not be viewed as the end point of federal involvement in salmon recovery and that the agencies recognize the call for talks on salmon recovery, energy and economics in the region.

“The Corps does not believe that continued court actions are productive to continuing this dialogue,” he said.

Kristin Meira of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association said litigation “only serves to divide the many entities that must work together, and delay the real work we must accomplish to achieve our mutual goals.”

Kurt Miller of the Northwest River Partners said the groups who intend to sue are singularly focused on dam breaching, are overlooking climate change and its negative impact on salmon runs across the Pacific Ocean, and hydropower’s role in reducing carbon emissions.

“We are hopeful the organizations behind the lawsuit will reconsider and move back to the collaborative process they had previously publicly supported,” he said.

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League at Boise said the groups’ desire for talks doesn’t mean they are willing to accept a bad salmon and dam plan.

“We are very earnest in our interest in regional collaboration and working to restore fish and make communities whole but as we do that, we mustn’t let the federal agencies produce plans that fail Idaho.”

American Rivers, one of the groups that plans to sue over the salmon and dams plan, recently signed an agreement with the National Hydropower Association in which the environmentalists recognize a role for hydropower in fighting climate change and the industry group agreed to the need to remove some obsolete or damaging dams. Among other things, both sides pledged to work to make hydropower at dams that remain more efficient and to seek funding for river restoration.

Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, said the agreement could produce “win-win” situations but that it doesn’t mean his group has changed its view on the best way to recover Snake River salmon and steelhead.

“As far as American Rivers support for removing the Snake River dams, this agreement has no bearing on that whatsoever,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we think the case for removing those four dams has only become stronger over the past year.”


Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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