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Deep Dive: Snake River Dams

Take a deep dive into Snake River dams!

Three federal agencies oversee the operation of dams in the Columbia River Basin and are tasked with protecting salmon from the impacts of dams.  These salmon are a critical source of food for endangered Southern Resident orcas.

Why is restoring the Snake River so important?

The Columbia River Basin was once home to the biggest runs of Chinook salmon in the world, with about half returning to the Snake River.  The area past the dams is protected wilderness area, a huge expanse of pristine, largely intact high elevation streams – a salmon dream house – that can help salmon withstand impacts from climate change.  This incredible habitat means that wild Snake River Chinook have a high recovery potential – if we make things easier for them.

Columbia River Basin map with Lower Snake River dams

Why should we breach the dams?

Breaching the Snake River dams, in combination with increased spill (water flow) through other dams in the Columbia River Basin, provides more certainty of long-term survival and recovery for wild Snake River Chinook salmon than any other measure.  Dams not only make it harder and more stressful for adult salmon to return to the streams of their birth to spawn, they also create significant challenges for baby salmon leaving the river, which means fewer salmon grow up in the ocean (and possibly become orca food).  Removing the dams and increasing spill would help the river system return to more natural conditions, which can help increase survival of wild Snake River Chinook salmon to the point of rebuilding healthy populations – something that the federal agencies themselves recognized in their recent review of dam operations.

How does this affect Southern Resident orcas?

Southern Residents rely on abundant and available salmon throughout their range – from the Salish Sea to California – to survive.  Without enough food, the orcas are suffering – they are skinny, more susceptible to illness and stress, and are struggling to give birth to healthy calves.  The orcas usually forage in coastal waters in the winter and spring, and return to the mouth of the Columbia when spring Chinook gather to swim upriver.  Recent data compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service strengthens the connection of Columbia Basin spring Chinook to the Southern Resident orcas, and indicates that over half of the Chinook eaten by the orcas in coastal waters are from the Columbia system.  Restoring the Snake River is one of the most significant things we can do to help recover those salmon quickly, and provide much-needed food for Southern Resident orcas in their coastal habitat.

How is this different from the Klamath River?

The Klamath River dams are privately owned, and while they still need sign-off from a federal agency to be decommissioned and removed, the process is a lot easier.  The Snake River dams are federally owned and operated, so things are a lot more complicated.  In addition, the Klamath River dams are only used for power production, while the Snake River dams still provide multiple services that would need to be replaced to ensure security for the communities that depend on them.

What needs to happen to bring the dams down?

The Snake River dams have been controversial ever since they were built in the 1960s and 70s, and people throughout the Pacific Northwest region are tired of the lengthy, costly litigation that surrounds the dams.  They are ready for solutions that support salmon, orcas, and communities.

Regional leadership is needed to work with stakeholders to identify needs, address concerns, and develop and implement an inclusive plan to take action and invest in the future of salmon, orcas, and people.   We need solutions that support salmon and orca recovery, honor tribal treaty rights, and meet the needs of communities.  Healthy and abundant salmon runs and a restored Snake River are important not just for orcas, but for our entire Pacific Northwest ecosystem.

What can you do?

Speak up for salmon and Southern Residents!  If you live in Washington or Oregon, send an email or note to your Governor and Congressional delegation.  A personal call or postcard to your elected officials is especially meaningful.  Give them a brief background on this issue and let them know why it's so important to you.  If you live elsewhere, we'll have actions coming for you soon.  In the meantime, you can help by sharing the story of the Southern Residents with your family and friends.  The more people who know and love this unique community of orcas, the bigger our collective voices will be when action is needed.  A lot needs to happen to restore the Snake River, support communities in the Pacific Northwest, and recover salmon and orcas, and it all starts with you.