Adult salmon at the Lower Granite Dam Adult TrapPhoto by Benjamin Sandford /NOAA Fisheries West Coast

‘The moral question of our generation’

Time dwindling for Snake River salmon as Northwest leaders debate dam removal

For native Snake River salmon and steelhead, the river is a major migration highway. Beginning on the western slope of Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains, it twists and turns westward through the plains of southern Idaho. After briefly swinging into Oregon and turning north, it forms the northern half of Oregon’s border with Idaho. 

The Snake, the Columbia River’s largest tributary, finally dumps into the Columbia near Kennewick, Washington after cutting across southeast Idaho. This final section of the river, the Washington section, is prone to controversy — it includes four hydroelectric dams. 

After decades of environmental, economic and political conflict surrounding the dams, the effort to breach the lower four Snake River dams has its most significant momentum yet, but politics and profits still stand in the way.

“This is the moral question of our generation,” says Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “And the opportunity of our generation.”

The Snake’s salmon are anadromous, meaning they are born in fresh water and migrate to the ocean as juveniles, only to return to the river of their birth — whether it be the Snake or one of its many tributaries —  a few years later to spawn. During both the outward migration and return trip, dams hurt the salmon’s chances at survival by creating physical barriers and destroying habitat.

Snake River salmon and steelhead returns were dangerously low in 2021. A study by the Nez Perce tribe predicted that three-quarters of spring Chinook populations would be below 50 spawners — and below recoverable levels — within four years if current population trends continue. Currently, 19 percent of Snake steelhead populations are already “quasi-extinct,” meaning individuals from the population still exist, but not enough to grow the population back. 

“Just one perfect storm for salmon and then they’re gone,” says Shannon Wheeler, vice-chairman of the Nez Perce executive committee. “One run is extirpated, then another is extirpated. We’re flirting right on the edge here.” An extirpated species is one that is locally extinct.

Along with several environmental groups, the tribe is a plaintiff in National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, a dam-breaching effort originally filed in 2001. But with the case still in limbo, those looking to breach the dams are considering all options. 

Republican Mike Simpson has represented Idaho in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1999. Earlier this year, he proposed the removal of the Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the lower Snake River. While he hasn’t yet written legislation, Simpson’s website includes the framework and details of the proposal, which he calls “The Columbia Basin Initiative.” Simpson says the Northwest has spent $17 billion on salmon recovery efforts in the last 30 years to virtually no avail.

“In the end we realized there is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place,” Simpson said when he introduced the concept. 

The proposal garnered support from environmental group Save our Wild Salmon. Executive Director Joseph Bogaard says the group has won six consecutive court cases invalidating inadequate salmon plans for the Columbia Basin. He says Simpson deserves “great credit” for the proposal.

“I think we have a crucial window of opportunity right now to restore the Lower Snake River, and do so in a manner that invests in affected communities and moves the region forward,” Bogaard says.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are more than 250 reservoirs and 150 hydroelectric projects in the Columbia Basin. Oregon, Washington and Idaho all rank among the top-10 states with the highest percentages of renewable energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Simpson’s $33.5 billion proposal recognizes the energy importance of the dams and suggests replacing the power infrastructure before the proposed removal date in 2030. Bonneville Power Administration would receive a $4 billion grant to replace any power lost from the dams. 

In total, these lower four dams can produce just above 3,000 megawatts of electricity when running at capacity, which is about 4 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s energy. 

The dams provide energy support for a hydropower system in the Pacific Northwest — including dams in the Willamette Valley — that produces 50 percent of the region’s electricity each year, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Hydropower provides 77 percent of Eugene’s electricity, according to the Eugene Water and Electric Board. 

In June, BPA credited Ice Harbor dam with saving Washington’s Tri-Cities from a heat-induced power blackout, according to local reporting by the Tri-City Herald. The dams have energy storage capabilities that stabilize other power sources when faced with stressors, like extreme heat, Michelle Cathcart, BPA vice president of transmission operations, told the Herald.

While BPA has argued that breaching the dams would force increased carbon emissions, a 2018 study from the NW Energy Coalition found otherwise. When hydropower is running at or below average levels, utility companies supplement more heavily with fossil fuels. However, the study found that the need for emission-based sources would decrease if the lower Snake dams were replaced with a “balanced clean energy portfolio,” which would include a combination of wind, solar and fossil fuels. 

While dams don’t burn fossil fuels to produce energy, Wheeler says the idea that dams are environmentally friendly is flawed. 

“They burn fish,” he says, speaking metaphorically. “Those dams burn salmon to generate their power.”

This energy portfolio would still require a hefty sum from Simpson’s proposal, but the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed on Nov. 5 didn’t include Snake dam removal. Moving forward, Simpson is relying on support from other politicians in the Northwest to back his plan in Congress. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer are both Democrats who publicly supported Simpson’s plan out of the gate, but fellow Oregon Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio, who currently represents Oregon’s 4th District, hasn’t publicly endorsed the plan.

Jim Martin, former chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, stressed DeFazio’s potential impact on the issue. DeFazio serves as chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, making him an important political piece in a collaborative legislative effort.

“He needs to be more clear about where he stands on this important issue,” Martin said. “I think he could help us get over this logjam.”

In a statement to Eugene Weekly, DeFazio writes that he is “reserving judgement” on the Simpson proposal because it isn’t drafted legislation yet, and that he “looks forward to seeing specific details of the proposal.”

“I believe more can be done to address adverse impacts — both public and private — on salmon populations along the Columbia and Snake rivers, while also ensuring those who rely on the river system for low-cost, carbon-free power, flood control and economic prosperity are not harmed,” DeFazio writes.

Any progress DeFazio might make on the issue would have to come in the next year. On Dec. 1, he announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2022.

This leaves the door open for another Democrat to represent the usually-blue district. The only Democratic candidate to file for the 4th District seat is Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Val Hoyle, whose campaign did not return requests of comment on the dams.

In addition to DeFazio and the BPA’s opposition to dam removal, some environmental nonprofits say they can’t agree with all the contingencies of Simpson’s plan. Simpson’s plan requires a 35-year license extension for all major dams in the Columbia Basin, as well as a 35-year moratorium on lawsuits against the dam. 

For three decades, no other dams could be removed, and environmental groups would lose the right to hold the dams accountable for violations of the Endangered Species, National Environmental Policy and Clean Water Acts. 

Quinn Read, Oregon policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says CBD “strongly” supports dam removal, but doesn’t support Simpson’s proposal in its current state. In a statement, CBD called Simpson’s proposal an “unacceptable attack on the nation’s most important environmental laws.”

Read asks,“Why aren’t leaders in Washington and Oregon putting their heads together to come up with their own proposal? Why does Mike Simpson get to define the terms of this entire thing?”

In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray rejected Simpson’s proposal and suggested “regional collaboration on a comprehensive, long-term solution to protect and bring back salmon populations.” On Oct. 22, the two said in a joint statement that they would complete a dam-breaching assessment by July 2022, along with plans for passing legislation in Congress. 

Murray said she hopes to include an analysis of dam breaching options in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, legislation the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, of which DeFazio is the chair, has passed every two years since 2014.

In a press release, Nez Perce Tribe Chairman Samuel Penney says the tribe was “very pleased to see such leadership and vision.” After the announcement, the Nez Perce, along with the other plaintiffs and defendants in NFW v. NMFS, agreed to delay case proceedings until July 2022.

But as Northwest leaders begin to collaborate, Snake River salmon extinction looms, leading some scientists to take more drastic measures. Five experts with decades of experience as natural resource scientists and managers filed declarations opposing the delay in litigation. They called for the court to order immediate breach of the dams.

The salmon “do not have time to wait until 2022,” says Jim Waddel, former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fish biologist. “At first, it might seem like just another year, but those years of studies and more studies and delay upon delay have added up to more than 20.”

While it’s the Snake River salmon facing the most immediate extinction threat, salmon throughout the Columbia Basin are in peril, including Willamette Valley salmon. Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association says a free-flowing lower Snake would benefit Willamette River salmon by cooling river temperatures throughout the mainstem Columbia in the face of climate change and record-breaking heat waves. 

The decision isn’t about one river, but an entire region.