By Nick Cunningham
May 25, 2021
Breaching the Snake River dams may offer the best shot at ensuring a healthy future for salmon in the Columbia Basin. Can a grand bargain be reached to reimagine the region with fewer dams?
"We have 3,000 members of my tribe and we fish in seven major tributaries that go into the Snake River. And historically, we had tens of thousands of fish for those 3,000 members,” says Don Sampson, chief of the Walla Walla Tribe, and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve had 120 fish to feed 3,000 members.”
For millennia, the Umatilla Tribes in Northeastern Oregon, along with many other Columbia Basin tribes, thrived on abundant salmon runs, catching thousands of pounds of fish each year, drying and preserving them to last through the winter and to trade with other tribes in the region.
But salmon go way beyond mere sustenance. For many Indigenous tribes in the Northwest, salmon are at the heart of tribal culture, economy and religion.
The scarcity of salmon in the Snake River and its tributaries continues to leave a void for tribal communities. “Now we can barely catch five or six fish a year for 3,000 people. How can we survive? How can our religion survive? How can our culture survive on six salmon?” says Sampson.
In addition to the hulking hydroelectric dams on the main stem of the Columbia River, the U.S. government built four large dams on the Snake River, which feeds into the Columbia, in the 1960s and ’70s.
The dams have played a large role in the decline of salmon in the region in the second half of the 20th century and up through the present.
But for the first time, there is serious talk of change. A convergence of factors has made the prospects of breaching some of the dams — once considered taboo in a region that prides itself on the economic vitality brought by New Deal-era dams — no longer unthinkable.
Renewable energy is growing and is increasingly the cheapest form of new electricity. Decades of salmon-recovery efforts have come up short, and litigation over the dams’ role in the decline of salmon is not going away.
The politics of dam breaching are shifting, with support for a new way forward coming from some unlikely places.
The odds that the dams are breached anytime soon appear remote, but advocates are leaping at what they see as a narrow path in the U.S. Congress to strike a grand bargain that would involve dam breaching to save the salmon, coupled with federal dollars to compensate impacted sectors, such as agriculture and shipping.
For Salmon People, as many Columbia Basin tribes refer to themselves, the clock is ticking. “These salmon populations are near extinction,” Sampson says. “The momentum is building and the urgency is now.”
Following the construction of the Bonneville Dam in the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built seven more dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers over the course of 40 years, culminating with the Lower Granite dam in 1975, the uppermost on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.
The large federally constructed dams brought cheap power for heavy industry and linked agriculture hundreds of miles inland to the Pacific Coast.
The dam system allowed for barge traffic along placid rivers, and interior Northwest farmers could ship their grain through the Port of Lewiston, the most inland port on the West Coast, more than 450 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria.
In many ways, the hydro system was an economic boon for the region, fueling rapid economic and population growth. But the salmon never recovered. Salmon populations plunged over the second half of the 20th century, and despite some modest signs of improvement at various points in the past two decades, their status remains dire.
There are many factors contributing to the decline of salmon — warmer ocean temperatures, predation, fish-hatchery competition, disease and overfishing. But the eight massive concrete walls erected across the lower Columbia and Snake rivers play an outsized role in pushing Snake River salmon closer to extinction, according to experts.
“It definitely is the dams. There’s no question there. The science is really solid,” says Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, a Portland-based nonpartisan research group that provides technical data on salmon in the Columbia River Basin.
The dams pose multiple threats to salmon. The physical barrier is ameliorated by fish passage and spillways, but the dams slow the river down to a crawl, lengthening the journey young salmon have to make to the ocean and back upriver as adults.
A stagnant river results in warmer water temperatures, which can rise to levels that are lethal to fish. Salmon also become more vulnerable to predators as they mill about behind a dam, looking for a passage. And the cumulative impact of having to pass eight large dams batters young Snake River fish, reducing their odds of survival.
Before the construction of dams, juvenile fish could hitch a ride on a fast-flowing cold river for a quick trip to the ocean. Now the migration is littered with risk.
Biologists point to the smolt-to-adult ratio, which measures the percentage of fish that return from their journey compared to the total number that left as juveniles.
Scientists say that a 2% return can keep the population stable; anything below and the population is declining.
In the mid-1960s, before the construction of the three final lower Snake River dams, Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon saw smolt-to-adult ratios ranging between 3.5% and 6.5%, which were healthy numbers. But that declined to less than 1.5% in the 1970s after the last three dams were constructed.
Over the years, dam improvements — fish passage, spilling more water and other dam modifications — have lessened the impact somewhat, reducing the loss at each dam. But it still is not enough.
There is a clear divide between salmon returning to the lower Columbia — the Deschutes and John Day rivers, for example — which only have to pass a couple of dams, and the salmon that need to travel farther up to the Snake River, which have to pass eight dams.
Spring/summer Chinook on the John Day River, which pass only three dams, averaged more than 3.5% between 2000 and 2017. For the Yakima River Basin (four dams), spring/summer Chinook returns averaged 2.5%.
But the percentage of spring/summer Chinook that successfully passed the eighth and final dam on the lower Snake River averaged roughly 0.7% between 2000 and 2017 — not enough to ensure long-term survival.
Restoration efforts are aimed at boosting the ratio to between 4% and 6%, which would not only rescue Snake River salmon from extinction but lead to “harvestable” levels of fish. But all measures to date have come up short.
The potential for recovery if the lower Snake River is restored is enormous. Behind the dams is extensive high-quality habitat — pristine mountains and lakes that remain mostly untouched by human development.
Crucially, much of the habitat is already protected public lands, ensuring protection from human encroachment well into the future. The salmon just need to be able to get there.
“Billions of dollars have been spent trying to mitigate the effect of the Snake River dams on salmon. We’ve tried everything, absolutely everything. We’re at the end of the road,” says DeHart. “We’ve done everything except dam breaching.”
In fact, the federal government, which operates the dams, has been in court for two decades trying to defend its plan to manage dwindling salmon populations that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. It has lost five consecutive times over the span of two decades.
“It is absolutely crazy that the government has not gotten it together to comply with the law, that it’s just been operating the federal hydro system illegally for two decades through repeated court rulings,” says Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, who is one of the plaintiffs suing the federal government. “That is, in a word, shameful.”
In 2020 the government came out with a new court-ordered study and found that breaching the Snake River dams would provide the biggest upside for the salmon out of all the options considered.
Nevertheless, the trio of federal entities that co-lead operations of the dams on the Columbia River System Operations — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration — warned that power prices would rise if the Snake River dams were breached, and as a result, the dams should remain intact.
A coalition of environmental groups are taking the government back to court.
While the plaintiffs once again have a strong case, True says that litigation is unlikely to resolve this conflict. “We think that now is the time for our elected leaders to step up and solve this problem because the solution is there. It can be done,” he says. “I don’t think we can get to the kind of comprehensive solution we need through the court.”
Fish biologists say that without breaching the dams, the fate of salmon in the Snake River looks grim. In February 2021, a group of 68 scientists wrote an open letter to the governors and members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest, calling for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams.
“These four dams must be removed not only to avoid extinction, but also to restore abundant salmon runs,” the letter reads.
Climate change lurks in the background, which not only threatens warmer ocean temperatures but warmer rivers as well. The best chance for Snake River salmon is to unlock high-quality habitat by breaching the dams, connecting them with a free-flowing cold-water river that will help salmon withstand a warming world, biologists say.
Doug Johnson, a spokesperson with Bonneville Power Administration, disputed the notion that breaching the dams would definitely lead to big gains for Snake River salmon, pointing to the federal government’s 2020 study, which found a wide range of possible outcomes for recovery, including a scenario in which salmon recover only modestly.
“We are committed to the mitigation responsibilities that we currently have, and we plan for that in our financial structure and are comfortable with that going forward,” Johnson says.
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson (R-02) sent shockwaves through the Pacific Northwest in February 2021 when he came out with a proposal to breach the lower Snake River dams.
“The current system is clearly not working,” he said in a video promoting his new plan. “There is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place.”
He proposed a grand bargain of sorts: breaching the dams in exchange for a hold on litigation and massive federal investments to compensate affected sectors. “If we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho salmon to extinction,” he said.
Rep. Simpson sketched out a proposal that included breaching the four lower Snake River dams in exchange for a 35– to 50-year relicensing for other dams in the Columbia River Basin, and a 35-year moratorium on litigation under the Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental laws.
The crucial component, however, is the establishment of a $33.5 billion fund to assist the region for the massive changes that would result from dam breaching, including $10 billion for replacing the lost energy, $2 billion for transmission, $3 billion for watershed improvements, $1.5 billion to assist farmers, $600 million to assist barge transportation and more.
The concept essentially calls for mothballing the Snake River dams to save the salmon, while reducing uncertainty over the other Columbia Basin dams and simultaneously reinvesting in the region to make affected parties whole.
Not everyone is happy. Initially, some environmental groups balked at the proposed moratorium on bedrock environmental laws even though they support dam breaching overall.
Stronger opposition comes from some of the industries that would be affected in the energy, shipping and agriculture industries.
“The dams provide tremendous flexibility,” says Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a trade association of electric utilities in the Northwest. He points not just to the power that the four dams provide but also to their ability to provide energy storage over a multiday period. “Hydropower is really valuable to the region,” Miller says.
He adds that climate change is a big reason to keep the dams because they generate carbon-free power.
According to the federal government’s 2020 environmental impact statement, if renewables, battery storage and other noncarbon alternatives replaced the dams, it would result in electricity rate increases to its public utility customers of between 9.5% and 19.3%.
Some say that estimate is overstated. According to a 2018 study by the NW Energy Coalition, an association of utilities and environmental groups, replacing all of the power from the four lower Snake River dams could be done with a combination of renewables, energy efficiency, batteries and demand-response measures at minimal cost.
The study estimated that the average ratepayer would pay less than $1.40 per month.
That study is now a few years old and the price tag is probably even lower today because of the falling cost of renewables, a trend that is only expected to continue in the years ahead, according to Nancy Hirsh, executive director of NW Energy Coalition.
“The energy services from the Snake River dams are replaceable,” Hirsh says.
Power replacement, as challenging as it might be, at least has some obvious solutions. Other sectors face more daunting uncertainties. “The Columbia - Snake River is our highway to the world. We are a natural resource-based economy — so it’s ag and timber,” says David Doeringsfeld, manager for the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, just upriver from the Lower Granite dam on the border with Washington state.
The dams have allowed for the shipment of commodities from the interior Northwest, mainly wheat, hundreds of miles downriver to the Pacific. Breaching the dams would “end all shipping out of the port of Lewiston,” he says, “and it would turn the Lewis Clark Valley into a stinking mudhole.”
Breaching the dams would have “a pretty dramatic impact on the level of train and truck activity” needed to ship grain, adding costs to farmers who already “have a pretty narrow margin,” says Amanda Hoey, CEO of Oregon Wheat Commission, a trade association of wheat producers.
She pointed to one estimate that found that more than 39,000 rail cars or more than 150,000 semitrucks would have been needed to replace the cargo volume that was shipped on the Snake River in 2019.
For thousands of years, Columbia Basin tribes lived off the abundance of salmon. But that changed as white settlers poured into the Northwest in the 19th century. Northwest tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government ceding millions of acres of land but reserving the right to fish and hunt in their “usual and accustomed places.”
The U.S. never really lived up to its end of the bargain, with white settlers not only taking land but also taking fish and fouling the rivers with pollution.
The 20th-century dams were a decisive blow, obliterating traditional fishing grounds. The U.S. government’s role in the decline of salmon is “an environmental injustice due to the resources that we were promised to us in perpetuity for the bargain of the treaty,” says Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe.
“My grandfather went to World War I and World War II, fought for the United States, and they came back and they destroyed his most sacred fishing place. That was the basis for him to feed his family,” says Sampson of the Walla Walla Tribe.
“Imagine a foreign country coming in and wiping out every aspect of the economy that you relied on and saying: ‘Sorry, we’re taking over. We’re taking 90% of your land. We’re stripping you of 95% of your economic base,’” Sampson adds. “That’s the exact same situation that Indigenous sovereign governments were in and have been in.”
Sampson has set up the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance, a group aimed at advocating on behalf of Northwest tribes in the pursuit of salmon recovery.
On April 15 this year, a group of 12 Northwest tribes issued a joint statement of principles in light of Rep. Simpson’s proposal and praised him for sticking his neck out on such a controversial issue. Sampson says that was a powerful political statement.
“We have 14 tribes coming together, which is very difficult. We hope that it’s not too late to get at least an initial start in the Senate infrastructure bill,” he says. “It’s a very key opportunity. There may be very few opportunities into the future. That’s why there’s a sense of urgency.”
President Joe Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package that is expected to work its way through Congress later this summer. Dam-breaching proponents see this as a unique opportunity that does not come around too often.
Sampson and the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance are supporting the tribes as they press politicians to strike a deal, and Sampson says the Democratic coalition in the Northwest needs to step up.
“This is a surprise that we would have a Republican from Idaho come out with such a progressive strategy. And our Democratic leadership is sitting on the sidelines,” says Sampson.
Environmental groups echoed that sentiment. “Our Northwest delegation is not doing enough. We need our leadership to take action,” says Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, “whether Rep. Simpson’s proposal, whether it’s something entirely new. There could be some real heroes when we look back in history at who took bold action to protect salmon.”
Oregon Business reached out to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), as well as Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), most of whom issued noncommittal statements about supporting a stakeholder-driven dialogue on the issue. Sen. Cantwell did not respond to a request for comment.
“Sen. Merkley has compared his immersion in the effort to remove four Klamath River dams to removal of the Snake River dams: With the Klamath dams, the impacts are modest, but it’s still been incredibly difficult to move forward,” Sara Hottman, a spokesperson for Sen. Merkley wrote in an email. “The Snake River dams, however, have massive impacts on transportation, power, flood control, recreation, etc.”
Given the tight timetable for President Biden’s infrastructure bill, the odds that a major deal can come together appear unlikely. But Simpson has said that he hopes to secure federal dollars in the infrastructure package and set it aside in a fund while regional stakeholders hash out a plan.
Whether or not he is successful, the Simpson proposal, at a minimum, has sparked a conversation.
Meanwhile, an effort established by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana is working to charter the Columbia Basin Collaborative, where representatives of the four states will meet to discuss the interests of all stakeholders regarding salmon recovery. But the forum will only issue recommendations at some future date, not make policy.
Don Sampson stressed that a comprehensive solution is the right way to think about how to resolve this issue. “We’re saying we understand what it is like to have nothing. We don’t want the farmers to go through that. We don’t want the people who barge their products to go through that.
"So how can we mitigate them and also have a win-win where salmon are restored?” Sampson says.