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Ecology and salmon related articles

Lower Snake River

America's Most Endangered River
by American Rivers - March 11, 1999


Threat: Federal Dams


To avoid the extinction of wild Snake River salmon and steelhead, the Clinton Administration must partially remove four dams on the lower Snake River. By replacing the free flowing Snake River with a series of slackwater pools, the dams have created lethal obstacles to migrating adult and juvenile fish. All four remaining stocks of Snake River salmon are listed as endangered and Snake River steelhead are listed as threatened. Legally obligated to release a Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery plan in December of 1999, the administration's decision will determine the fate of these species.

The River

The lower Snake River flows 140 miles from Lewiston, Idaho, to the river's confluence with the Columbia River. The largest tributary of the Columbia, the Snake River once produced more salmon and steelhead than any other tributary in the basin. Over a million salmon and steelhead once migrated up the Snake River every year. The fish traveled as far as 900 miles from the ocean to spawning grounds in the mountains of Idaho and Oregon. The Snake River is a vital migration route for fall chinook salmon, spring/summer chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, and steelhead.

The lifecycle of Snake River salmon is inextricably linked to the river. Adult salmon lay and fertilize their eggs in the gravel bottoms of the river and its tributaries. After rearing in fresh water, young fish journey to the sea. As a salmon travels downriver, its body undergoes changes to prepare for life in the ocean. When it is time for the salmon to reproduce, it uses its remarkable homing ability to find its way back to the part of the Snake River system where it was born. Fighting currents and jumping waterfalls, the salmon eventually makes its way upstream to spawn.

The Risk

Four US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) dams--Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite--were built on the lower Snake River between 1962 and 1975. These dams destroyed the river's natural flow, turning its rushing waters into a series of slackwater reservoirs.

Changing the fundamental characteristics of the river has placed salmon on the brink of extinction. Before the dams were built, young fish from central Idaho were flushed to the ocean in about one week. Now, it takes up to two months. This delay is very harmful to the young fish as their bodies undergo the physiological changes that prepare them to survive in salt water. This evolutionary biological process can not be delayed to accommodate delays in reservoirs. The stagnant reservoirs also expose young salmon to predators and disease and lethally high water temperatures. Further, many fish die when forced through the dams' hydropower turbines.

In an attempt to help the young fish get downstream, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on ineffective schemes, such as collecting young fish from the river with giant screens, loading the young fish onto trucks and barges, and moving them down river around the dams. But despite this enormous expense, salmon runs have dropped drastically over the course of this 20-year experiment.

The dams also take a heavy toll on adults returning upstream to spawn. Many salmon have trouble finding the fish ladders on the dams or die when exposed to lethally high water temperatures in the ladders. Scientists believe that many of the adults that do eventually reach their spawning grounds upstream are often too exhausted from the grueling journey over the dams and through the unnaturally warm reservoirs to spawn successfully. As a result, the number of adults returning to spawn is far below the number needed to ensure survival of these species.

If the salmon go extinct, the Snake River Basin will lose a vital link in its web of life. Salmon have historically been an important source of food for grizzly bears, bald eagles, and other wildlife. Additionally, after spawning, salmon die and their bodies decompose, providing essential nutrients for both plants and aquatic life.

The loss of the fish would also mean further social dislocation and economic loss for sport, commercial, and Native American fishing-dependent communities and businesses. Declining fisheries have been economically devastating up and down the coast and as far inland as Central Idaho. Studies have estimated that recovering Columbia Basin runs of salmon could potentially result in an annual economic benefit of almost $500 million and 25,000 jobs. While not all of this would be realized by just recovering the Snake River fish, it does point to the enormous value of restoring these salmon. Another study estimated that recovering Idaho runs of salmon and steelhead would create annual economic benefits of $150 million in Idaho alone.

The ecological, economic, and cultural damage caused by the dams outweighs their economic benefits. The dams produce less than five percent of the region's electricity. Partially removing the dams would raise the average residential electricity bill by only $1 to $5 per month, and the Northwest would still enjoy the lowest-cost power in the nation. The power produced by the dams could be replaced responsibly using currently available energy conservation investments, such as more efficient heating and lighting systems in homes and buildings and renewable energy sources.

Though the economic analysis is not yet complete, railroads and trucks offer practical, affordable alternatives to river barge transportation made possible by the dams. The barge navigation system is not self-supporting, requiring large subsidies from federal taxpayers.

These four dams provide no flood control. Only one of the dams, Ice Harbor, provides water for irrigation. Thirteen agribusinesses pump water from above Ice Harbor dam to irrigate approximately 35,000 acres of nearby land. If the dams remain, additional water must be released from upstream reservoirs in an effort to increase the flow of the lower Snake River and speed baby salmon through the reservoirs. The upstream water needed for this "flow augmentation" strategy is currently being used to irrigate 230,000 acres in Idaho. The potential loss of irrigated lands in Idaho is enormous compared to the irrigated land loss if Ice Harbor dam is removed.

What Can Be Done:

The Clinton Administration's December 1999 decision must choose partial dam removal as the cornerstone of its plan to save the Snake River wild salmon and steelhead. (Partial removal means removing the earthen portion of the dam.) It would take the Corps an estimated seven years to remove the dams, once the decision is made. Scientists say the longer we wait to remove the dams, the closer we get to the point of no return for recovering these fish.

To prepare for the removal of the dams, the Clinton Administration should direct the Corps, in collaboration with other federal and state agencies, to develop a transition and mitigation plan to minimize any economic hardship associated with partial dam removal. This critical missing piece must be included in the ongoing Corps study, which will provide the basis for the administration's decision. At a minimum, the plan should address the replacement of lost power generation and the shift from barging to rail and truck transportation of commodities, and identify and analyze economic opportunities created by a free-flowing lower Snake River.

In addition to developing a transition and mitigation plan, the administration should also ensure that the ongoing Corps draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to be released this fall, is objective and thorough. This study addresses the biological and economic impacts of alternatives for improving the survival of Snake River salmon and steelhead at the four dams. Partial dam removal is one of the three main options being analyzed. It is critical that this study is comprehensive and balanced, and that it provides key decision makers with all the information they will need to wisely decide the fate of not only Snake River salmon and steelhead, but the region's economy and culture as well.

Finally, citizens must urge their elected officials to support salmon and steelhead recovery by the best available option--partial dam removal. If the administration proposes partial removal of the four lower Snake dams, Congress must approve the plan before it can be put into effect. As the evidence continues to mount, citizens need to point out that partial dam removal makes both environmental and economic sense.

For a more detailed look at the issue, please see the recently released report: The Case for Partially Removing Four Dams on the Lower Snake River.

For More Information, Contact:

Tim Stearns, Save Our Wild Salmon, 206-622-2904,
Rob Masonis, American Rivers, 206-213-0330,
Justin Hayes, American Rivers, 202-347-7550
Beth Chasnoff, Taxpayers for Common Sense, 202-546-8500,

by American Rivers
Lower Snake River: America's Most Endangered River
American Rivers, July 1999

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