The Snake River dams were controversial even before they were built. While they were still in the planning stage, Northwest Tribes, salmon advocates, and even state agencies spoke out against the damage that would be caused to salmon. Tribes who lived along the Snake River had already seen the devastation that major dams caused to their way of life – changing wild and free-flowing rivers into slow, heavily managed “systems.”
But the dams were built anyway, and the fight to remove them has continued for more than 50 years. Tribes, fishermen, salmon biologists, conservation groups, and the State of Oregon have battled federal agencies responsible for the dams and salmon in court for decades. And when it became clear just how important Snake River salmon were as a food source for the Southern Resident orca community, orca advocates joined the call to breach the dams.
The fight has dragged on for decades, but in the last few years there have been signs of light at the end of the tunnel. Some changes were positive: renewed leadership from Northwest Tribes and a new Administration changing their approach to negotiations. Some were not so hopeful: the continued decline of salmon and Southern Resident orcas, along with the worsening impacts of climate change and increasing cost to maintain the aging dams. But these changes caused some leaders to take another look at breaching the dams, concluding that the only way to save Snake River salmon as well as secure a future for Pacific Northwest communities was for the dams to come down.
Even the federal agencies that oversee these dams agreed that breaching gives salmon their best chance at survival. However, breaching has not moved forward due to the services provided by the dams, like power production, irrigation, and river transport. Multiple times, those federal agencies opted for management plans that were inadequate for salmon recovery and failed to make any real changes to the system, sticking to the failing status quo. upheld a failing “business as usual” approach.
Finally, in 2021, elected leaders from Washington State committed to reviewing those services and what is needed to replace them – a major step toward dam breaching and a solid plan to support communities through river restoration.
“The dams significantly altered the physical, chemical, hydrological, and biological processes in the Snake River changing it from free flowing to a series of reservoirs. All species of salmon that use the Snake River are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act”
That review resulted in a report, released in June 2022 (Orca Month!). The report not only confirms that breaching the dams gives salmon their best chance at survival but shows that replacing the services of the Snake River dams is possible, cost-effective, and extremely necessary. Energy, irrigation, and transportation can be replaced and even improved while restoring a healthier river for salmon – and that means more food for hungry Southern Resident orcas.
This report outlines the path forward, but more work is still needed to turn these recommendations into specific and actionable plans. Decision-makers need to keep hearing from advocates like you that a future without the Snake River dams is not only possible but essential.
WDC will continue to work with partners to ensure that the Southern Resident orcas are included in the decisions to come, and we ask that our supporters join us in continuing to reach out to the Biden-Harris Administration.
We’re excited that our Northwest leaders are finally taking a hard look at breaching the Snake River dams, and we appreciate the work put in so far. Now we need these leaders to take the next step and work with the Biden-Harris Administration, Northwest Tribes, and affected communities to take action this year to stop salmon extinction and ensure a future for Southern Resident orcas.