Water flowing through the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
Photo courtesy of US Army Corp of Engineers.

When dams were first proposed on the Snake River their impacts on salmon were predicted by tribes and others, according to a new report on the costs of replacing the dams’ services.  In 1944, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said: “[these] dams present, collectively, the greatest threat to the maintenance of the Columbia River salmon population of any Project heretofore constructed or authorized in the Basin.”

Today, Snake River Chinook are at a fraction of their historic levels—some at less than 1% of their pre-dam numbers. Human interventions such as trucking fish by road, fish ladders, and other dam bypass mechanisms have simply failed to match the evolutionary processes that fine-tuned salmon for this biologically challenging, and extraordinary feat: to travel from river to ocean to feed, and return years later to spawn in their natal river.

Dams have pitted the survival of endangered species against human needs for power, irrigation, and transportation, and so for decades, partisan interests have failed to reach agreement on how to replace the latter in order to save the former.

Now a statement released August 24, 2022, by Governor Inslee proposes:

"The state and federal governments should implement a plan to replace the benefits of the Lower Snake River Dams to enable breaching to move forward."

This is indeed a substantial, bold premise, and must be recognized as such. Yet this also places the dams’ human-centric services first, and only then will restoring the Snake River’s ecosystem services be on the table. The next steps as outlined in Governor Inslee and Senator Murray’s recommendations will require both state and federal funding, with bipartisan support. So, until then, the future of the dams—and therefore the survival of salmon and killer whales—hangs in the balance.

After decades of dither and delay, this feels like the brakes being applied again when the time for action is now. Is there really no accelerated path forward when many solutions to replacing the dams’ energy services are already on the table?

Numerous studies show that breaching these dams is the fastest way to save the endangered salmon populations in this river system, and provide much-needed  wild Chinook for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. In fact, in a July 2022 report, NOAA Fisheries unequivocally supports breaching without delay:

"The science robustly supports process-based stream habitat restoration, dam removal (breaching), and ecosystem-based management, and overwhelmingly supports acting, and acting now."