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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Save Our wild Salmon is leading a coalition of conservation, fishing, clean energy, orca and river advocates to protect and restore abundant, self-sustaining populations of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia-Snake River Basin for the benefit of people and ecosystems. Our coordinated legal, policy, communications and organizing activities focus on holding the federal government accountable by requiring Northwest dam agencies (Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineer) and NOAA to craft and implement a legally valid, science-based Salmon Plan (or Biological Opinion/”BiOp”) for the Columbia-Snake Basin.

Since 1998, SOS has led a dynamic campaign to restore a natural, freely-flowing lower Snake River in southeast Washington State, expand spill on the federal dams that remain, and other necessary measures, based on the law and best available science.

Dam removal: Cornerstone of a lawful, science-based plan

The removal the four lower Snake dams must be a cornerstone of any lawful salmon restoration strategy in the Columbia Basin. Lower Snake River dam removal will restore 140-mile river and 14,000+ acres of riparian habitat and bottomlands. It will cut dam-caused salmon mortality by at least 50% and restore productive access for wild salmon and steelhead to 5,500+ miles of contiguous, pristine, protected upriver habitat in northweast Oregon, central Idaho and southeast Washington State. Much of this immense spawning/rearing habitat found above the lower Snake River is high elevation and thus provides a much-needed coldwater refuge as a critical buffer against a warming climate. Restoring a freely-flowing lower Snake River will deliver tremendous economic, ecological and cultural benefits to the tribal and non-tribal people of the Northwest and the nation.

Climate change increases the urgency to remove these four dams and restore this river. High harmful water temperatures in the lower Snake River’s four reservoirs are now routine. Their frequency, duration and intensity have been steadily growing in the last several decades – with increasingly devastating impacts on out-migrating juvenile fish and adults returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. In 2015, for example, just 1% of 4000 adult Snake River sockeye that entered the Columbia’s mouth reached their Idaho spawning gravels; others perished in warm reservoir waters impounded by federal dams on the lower Snake and lower Columbia Rivers. A restored lower Snake will dramatically lower water temperatures and again offer diverse habitats found in living rivers, including additional coldwater refugia currently lost as a result of these reservoirs today.

Spill: A critical near-term measure to increase salmon survival

Increased spill at all federal dams is needed today as an immediate, interim measure to buy time for these endangered populations until a more effective and a lawful strategy is in place. Spill – water releases during the juvenile salmon out-migration to the ocean in the spring and summer - increases juvenile survival by reducing migration time, exposure to warm waters, predation and the overall numbers of barged (artificially transported) fish. Increased juvenile survival boosts adult returns in subsequent years – benefiting marine/terrestrial/freshwater wildlife and coastal/inland fishing communities.
These policies will substantially increase fish populations with corresponding impacts on the 125+ species that benefit from salmon. They will increase resilience for wild salmon and steelhead, the ecosystems they inhabit, and human communities they impact. And they will deliver critical economic, recreational and cultural benefits to the communities of the Northwest and the nation.

Salmon restoration requires community solutions

Our coalition recognizes that the removal of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River will affect the communities that currently use them – especially the communities of Lewiston (ID) and Clarkston (WA) and the energy, commercial and irrigation sectors. Based on the significant data on these dams, their modest services and the availability of efficient, cost-effective alternatives, salmon advocates are ready to sit down with both sovereigns and stakeholders to craft a responsible plan that removes these costly dams and replaces their services with alternatives.

The problem and the solution in five bullets:

  • The federal government’s long-standing status quo approach to protecting wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia-Snake Basin has failed – five consecutive federal salmon plans have been ruled inadequate and illegal by three different judges across more than twenty years.
  • During this time, federal agencies have spent more than $10 billion of public money, but have yet to recover a single salmon or steelhead population.
  • The economics of these four dams have been in question since even before their construction in the 1960s and 1970s. Their always modest services – especially energy and transportation, - have been in steep decline as the dams’ maintenance and operations costs rapidly rise. Their benefits can be easily, cost-effectively replaced with reliable, effective alternatives like wind, solar and rail.
  • Removing these costly dams and restoring this historic river and its wild fish is our nation’s greatest river and salmon restoration opportunity today.
  • A restored, resilient lower Snake River will protect endangered wild salmon and steelhead facing extinction; save American taxpayer and Northwest energy consumer dollars; create thousands of jobs regionally; benefit struggling fish and wildlife populations including endangered Southern Resident Orcas; and help ensure that we meet our Treaty obligations to Native American Tribes in the Columbia Basin.

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