Removing Snake Dams ‘Essential’ for Threatened Salmon

Breaching dams wasn’t the only solution in the report, which said many different efforts are needed to rebuild salmon populations

By Clark Corbin

A new draft report released by President Joe Biden’s administration last week found that breaching lower Snake River dams is “essential” to helping protect and recover threatened salmon populations.

The 20-page report is called “Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead,” and it was released July 12 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon.

The report found removing four lower Snake River dams in Washington would lead to a significant reduction in direct and indirect mortality caused by salmon needing to pass through the dams during their migrations to and from the Pacific Ocean.

Breaching dams wasn’t the only solution in the report, which said many different efforts are needed to rebuild salmon populations.
The report also called for managing the number and behavior of the salmon’s predators, protecting and restoring tributaries and habitat, reintroducing salmon into blocked areas of the upper Columbia River and hatchery and harvest reform.

“These actions are needed to provide the highest likelihood of reversing near-term generational declines and to rebuilding towards healthy and harvestable runs in the face of climate change,” the report stated.

The new draft report looked at the short-term and long-term outlook for Columbia River salmon and steelhead stocks and rebuilding population efforts. It found the short-term outlook was grim. The report noted four of the 16 salmon stocks that historically spawned above Bonneville Dam are extinct and another seven are endangered and face risk of extinction. The report also pointed out many salmon stocks are resilient and respond positively to favorable environmental conditions. That’s why salmon conservation, habitat protection and population efforts are important.

“However, all optimism about future stock status must be tempered by the continued pressure from a changing climate and the ever-expanding human footprint,” the report states. “Only rapid, concerted, system-wide actions keyed to existing strongholds of stock potential will result in durable biological benefits to interior Columbia stocks.”

An unrelated recent study led by a University of Idaho researcher found that global warming threatens a key salmon spawning habitat in Central Idaho.

What are leaders saying about the report?

Predictably, reaction was divided in Idaho, where debates about dams, energy and salmon have raged for several decades.

In February 2021, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, shook the salmon debate up when he put forward a $33.5 billion dollar plan to help save salmon. Simpson’s team said his plan was based on three years of work and input gathered from more than 300 meetings. Breaching four lower Snake River dams located in Washington was one of the aspects of Simpson’s plan that many people key in on.

“I am not certain removing these dams will restore Idaho’ salmon and prevent their extinction,” Simpson said in a 2021 video promoting his salmon recovery plan. “But I am certain if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho’s salmon to extinction.”

But many Idaho Republicans oppose dam breaching, and Simpson’s plan has, so far, not advanced to become a bill or law. Several Republicans, including Gov. Brad Little, criticized the new NOAA draft report and reiterated their opposition to dam breaching when the report was released.

“I have been clear in my opposition to dam breaching because it is not a silver bullet for salmon recovery,” Little said in a written statement. “Idaho has shown leadership and commitment to bringing together diverse interests to ensure abundant, sustainable populations of salmon and steelhead for present and future generations.”

U.S Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, also criticized the report and said only Congress, not President Biden, has the authority to remove dams.

“In a time of record inflation and soaring energy prices, the Biden administration is endorsing a plan to rip out the Northwest’s clean energy assets while in the same breath asserting climate change is the largest existential threat,” Risch said in a written statement. “Even a study they commissioned acknowledged that energy replacement alone could cost over $75 billion, and unlike the comprehensive and public Columbia River System Operation review, this limited analysis was done in secret and without process.”

Several conservationists welcomed the report and say its findings confirm the need to take steps now to save threatened salmon.

“The debate on what is needed for salmon, orca, and Tribes and how to replace the electricity that these dams provide is over,” Idaho Conservation League executive director Justin Hayes said in a written statement. “These reports are clear. Removing the four lower Snake River dams must happen, and it needs to happen soon. The time to act is now — for salmon, orca and Tribal justice. President Biden and Northwest elected officials need to press forward, follow the conclusions of these reports and lead.”

On the other hand, Northwest RiverPartners, an organization that represents community utilities in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and other Western states, said removing the dams would cause energy bills to go up and lead to an increase in carbon emissions.

“A future without the lower Snake River Dams means billions of dollars in costs for millions of electricity customers across the Northwest,” Kurt Miller, the executive director of Northwest River Partners, said in a written statement.

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Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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