Idaho’s salmon can’t survive with the lower Snake dams in place

Shortly after taking office as Idaho Attorney General in January 1983, I took a crash course in the life-and-death struggles of Idaho’s anadromous fish. The U.S. Supreme Court set oral argument that March for a case filed years earlier by a prior AG, Wayne Kidwell. The lawsuit was against Oregon and Washington, claiming the down-streamers were overfishing salmon and steelhead runs. Idaho sought an allocation of the fish runs.

I arrived in Washington two weeks ahead of the argument with about 20 banker boxes of records from the trial. My study of the records included the life cycle of every run, the upstream and downstream mortality of each run at each of the eight dams (4 Columbia and 4 lower Snake), habitat issues, the fish taken in the two rivers and the Pacific by all types of fishers, and practically every other factor affecting the survival or mortality of these remarkable fish.

The one thing that really struck me during my preparation for the argument was the devastating toll the dams took on the smolts during their downstream journey. It was almost beyond comprehension that such large numbers would get minced by the dam turbines, perish in the slack waters behind the dams or otherwise succumb to dam-related stress. Overcoming the dangers posed by the dams was obviously the key to survival.

The argument went fairly well but the outcome was not ideal. On the plus side, the Court ruled that each state was entitled to an equitable share of the fish and that each had a responsibility to conserve and augment the resource. On the other side, six of the nine Justices declined to set an allocation formula. Idaho ex rel. Evans v. Oregon, 462 U.S. 1017 (1983).

The case gave me an appreciation of these magnificent creatures and a strong commitment to do everything possible to protect and enhance their runs. It is hard to comprehend the strength and tenacity of these fish–fighting their way through hundreds of miles of rushing and cascading waters to regenerate their species and then die.

In the ensuing years, every conceivable measure has been tried to reduce mortality at the Snake dams–trucking or barging around the dams, spilling over or around them, whatever–but nothing has really worked. Some solutions increased survival on the journey to the Pacific, but it was found that large numbers of those fish suffered delayed mortality from the stress.
Despite the expenditure of about $17 billion, there has been little success in regenerating the wild fish runs. Of 100 smolts heading downstream, only 1 can be expected to make it back to its spawning grounds. The recovery target is 4% and the minimum is 2%. The draft Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Engagement Report released by the State of Washington in December estimates that the recovery target can be achieved by breaching the 4 lower Snake dams and increasing the spill level at the 4 lower Columbia dams.

A long-time observer of this drama, Rocky Barker, noted in an Idaho Statesman article last May that the solution to the problem is removal of the four lower Snake River dams. https://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/letters-from-the-west/article230754344.html. Instead of trying to figure out a way to get the fish safely around, through or over the dams, just punch through the dams.

It has taken me a while to conclude that this is the way to go. Other solutions can be figured out for getting grain to market, producing power and the like. But restoring this stretch of the Snake to its pre-dam condition is the only feasible way in my mind to safely flush the smolts to the Columbia. I would not support breaching if it would endanger Idaho’s control over its water. It will not!

With the increasing temperature of both the Pacific and the two rivers, the survival of anadromous fish runs has been made even more precarious. They might have a fighting chance if we can remove the main barrier to their continued existence. If the Snake dams stay intact, the salmon and steelhead won’t be around much longer. The Supreme Court indicated we have a responsibility to conserve and augment this valuable resource. Let’s do it.

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13 thoughts on “Idaho’s salmon can’t survive with the lower Snake dams in place”

  1. Thank you, Jim; you are correct. I recall the testimony of IDFG salmon biologist Ed Bowles in the late 1990s at a hearing in Boise. Ed said, unequivocally, that restoring the lower Snake River (bypassing four dams) was necessary to restore Idaho salmon, asserting that there was no credible further debate about that. He said the challenge for Idaho’s leaders was working on achieving the social, political, and cultural consensus for removing those dams.

    Ed was right.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tom. We can only hope that those in a position to forge that consensus will have the courage to do so. Jim

      1. Jim, this piece should be circulated widely. I’d be happy to assist, by providing email addresses of many Idaho newspapers. Send me an email if that makes sense. Thanks again.

  2. Supporters of the status quo argue that this is a “complicated” issue. I disagree, It is a large issue but certainly not complicated. If we don’t act soon, one of Idaho’s icons will be little more than a memory.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. After about 4 decades of dithering and a good part of $17 billion down the drain, we ought to choose the remedy that has been staring us in the face all these years.

      1. Thank you, Jim Jones, for shining the light on the plight of the salmon. Its unfortunate that four decades and $17 billion, as you say, hasn’t worked. And yes, the remedy has been staring us in the face. Many conservationists knew decades ago that the devastating impact of the dams couldn’t be solved without removal. If we don’t act soon, it will be a moot point and the iconic salmon will be lost forever.

    1. Thanks, Bill. It is frustrating to watch the issue get talked to death with little to show for it. I like to think of it this way–If those magnificent creatures can risk it all to run the gauntlet down to the ocean, then return to spawn and die, we need to do everything we can to help. Jim

  3. There is a river in southern British Columbia that was first to identify a unique species of fish with a long slopping forehead that they then called a steelhead. The river is the Thompson which flows into the Frazier. There are no mines, oil/gas, minimal Ag and people until u get to Vancouver. There is also not one single dam! There are tons of predators and miles of nylon rope disguised as Indian gill nets!! There were a TOTAL of 86 steelheads returned in 2019. Not only are you dead wrong you’re just like the rest of the cowards afraid to take on the elephant in the room-gill nets

    1. I’m sure you have all of the answers, Lon. The dams don’t cause massive mortality and the $17 billion that has been spent trying to get the fish over or around the dams has been pointless. Here’s an interesting tidbit. Three dams were built in Hells Canyon and it stopped the runs cold. Must have been predators and gill nets. Everyone has their own facts nowadays.

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