There’s been a lot of talk about our dams over the last few weeks, and I want to make it abundantly clear: Any “solution” for our salmon population that includes removing the dams on the Lower Snake River is a nonstarter.
Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposed Columbia Basin Initiative seeks to breach the Lower Snake River dams in an attempt at boosting the native salmon population – while ignoring the very real issues, and solutions, that are impacting our fish populations.
Our native fish species and the Lower Snake River Dams can – and do – coexist. In Washington, our dams along the Snake and Columbia Rivers have fish passage rates in the mid to upper 90 percentiles and utilize some of the most state-of-the-art fish passage technology ever developed.
At the Ice Harbor Dam, world-class scientists are not only in the process of replacing all of the dam’s turbines with new fish-safe technology, but they are using this dam – one of the four dams proposed for breaching – to conduct critical research on fish passage that will shape the way the world builds and operates dams with the highest possible rates of fish survival.
It’s not every day that Governor Inslee and I agree, but just last week, the Governor and Senator Patty Murray came out with a joint statement rejecting Rep. Simpson’s dam-breaching proposal.
Unfortunately, with all the hyperbolic rhetoric and misinformation surrounding dams, it’s no wonder that people are concerned. In 1999, several environmental organizations posted a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “Timeline to Extinction: If we don’t act, Snake River salmon will disappear forever.” The ad went on to claim that unless the four Lower Snake River dams were removed, wild Snake River spring chinook salmon would be extinct by 2017.
At the time, the numbers did look ominous. During that spring of 1999, only 3,296 Snake River spring chinook passed the Lower Granite Dam – the fourth of the Lower Snake River dams and the furthest east they pass through before they reach Idaho. Just last year, in 2020, 23,380 Snake River spring chinook passed that same dam – a more than 700 percent increase compared to 21 years prior.
Another oft-overlooked facet of the issue is that native salmon populations started declining before our dams were even built. In fact, the state of Idaho quite literally poisoned many of their lakes systematically in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s to effectively exterminate the species and eliminate fish runs. Today, Idaho’s dams have no fish ladders, meaning that they have zero fish passage.
From the historic logging practices that destroyed spawning habitats to the many predation challenges our salmon face – be it orcas or sea lions or avian predators, it is no surprise our salmon population is struggling. Ocean conditions, disease challenges, and the impacts of fishing and harvesting also play a role in the species’ survival – not to mention the millions of gallons of raw sewage being dumped into the Puget Sound each year.
All of these issues collectively impact salmon populations, and, based upon the scientific information stemming from these actual impacts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has already developed the strategic plans to address these historic impacts and the current challenges facing the species today. So why are we trying to reinvent the wheel when the guidebook is already in our hands?
We know that dams and fish can – and do – coexist, and if we are going to make real progress, we must focus on the comprehensive plans we have in place.
In Washington, our dams provide us with countless benefits – from clean, renewable energy to good-paying jobs, irrigation, and transportation of our goods to market. Breaching these four dams is not only misguided, but it is dangerous – to our economy, to our environment, and to our way of life in the Pacific Northwest.