Let the River Run Wild or Not?



Kate Darby

Kellie Hebert

Kristy Fruit

Marybeth Phillis




Throughout the 20th Century the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation built many dams to meet the nation’s growing demand for water, navigation routes, and electricity. Thousands of dams reaching heights greater than 50 feet have been erected in the United States since the 1920s (Reisner).  The ecological consequences of building dams vary greatly from river to river, and dam to dam.  Once the site of the largest salmon runs in the world, the Columbia-Snake river system is currently a death trap for migrating fish.



The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) serves an area 300,000 square miles in size, spanning through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and small portions of Wyoming, Nevada, Utah and California.  BPA owns and operates more than 75% of the high-voltage transmission grid in the Pacific Northwest, with about 80% of the power being generated from 29 federal dams (BPA Fast Facts).  The dams and the electrical system are known as the Federal Columbia River Power System, which has the capability to provide power for some 10 million people.  Because of this cheap hydropower, the Northwest average residential rate (5.1 cents/kWh) is relatively low compared to the U.S. average residential rate (8.5 cents/kWh).


Fourteen dams block the Columbia River, and twelve more block the Snake, its largest tributary.  Fortunately only eight of these federal dams (four on the Columbia and four on the Snake) pose any threat to the journey of the salmon.  The Columbia River dams have reaped both benefits and disasters.  The dams resulted in the mass extinction of dozens of salmon runs and the impoverishment of hundreds of local fishing communities.   However, these dams have also provided, and continue to provide, flood control, navigation and hydropower.  Because the four Columbia dams have been retrofitted to assist the passage of migratory smolts, the salmon mortality has been kept at an “acceptable” low rate (Duncan).  Despite the Columbia dams the pre-dam Snake system produced great salmon runs in the 1960s.  The single difference between prolific life and ultimate doom: the four Snake River dams.


The four 100-foot dams erected on the lower Snake River in the 1960s and 1970s—Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam—produce 4-7% of the region’s electricity (Reisner). The dams are of a type known as “run of the river” which offer no flood control and provide no significant storage for irrigation.  The dams also have a limited hydroelectric function, turning only one or two turbines for months at a time while the dams of the Columbia turn, on average, ten or more (Duncan).  The most unfortunate feature of these dams is that they serve as a death trap for smolts.  If the smolts manage to escape being pureed by turbine blades (8-15%) and avoid being plunged over spillways (2%), they are still not in the clear.  Their journey may be delayed by sluggish water behind the dam, causing them to starve and threatening their ability to adapt to salt water.  Before the construction of the dams, the spring runoff carried smolts up to 900 miles in just five days.  With the current dam system this same journey takes six weeks or more (Duncan).  As the smolts reside in slackwater, they encounter increased populations of bass, walleyes and other smolt-devouring predators due to the slackwaters’ elevated temperatures.  The smolts waste energy seeking river flow since the lack of current halts the migration journey, making them even more vulnerable and decreasing their chance of survival.  Wild salmon from the Snake River Basin have declined almost 90% in the last 30 years, with a tagged-fish study showing that less than 0.5% of the barged salmon survive to return to their spawning grounds a few years later (Lovett).  Every population of wild salmon has either been driven to extinction or is shielded by the Endangered Species Act.


Although it is the salmon that are in the spotlight, it must be recognized that the crisis also reaches into the lives of many fish-eating species, ranging from humans to bears and gulls to fish and insects.  In spawning rivers as much as 25-40% of the body weight of aquatic insects and small fish consists of protein from salmon (Sims).  Salmon is the sacramental fish of the region’s Native American culture and is an important component of their sustainable economy and religious practices (Duncan).  The flow of the Snake River is denied to the Indians and to those species that depend on salmon for nourishment, and is instead converted into profits for Anglo industrialists.


Over $3 billion has been spent in the past decade in efforts to revive the fishery (Reisner).  BPA alone has spent nearly $2 billion to support Northwest fish and wildlife programs (BPA Fast Facts).  River flows have been rerouted to by-pass turbines, fish have been transported around dams, high-powered diversion intakes have been screened, and hatcheries have been built with only modest improvements resulting.  Attempts to repair vanished salmon runs with hatchery fish have been failing for the last 40 years.  The wild strains of salmon and salmon and steelhead serve as the genetic engine, while hatchery fish are just batches of first cousins rapidly inbreeding themselves into genetic inferiority (Duncan).  It is impossible for the replicates to simply acquire survival and migration instincts that have been developing over thousands of years in the wild species.  It is the breeding with the wild stocks that give these artificial stocks any chance of survival; otherwise, they would quickly be wiped out by technological incest.


In 1993 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the so-called mind of salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act, proclaimed that the Columbia/Snake hydroelectric system “poses no jeopardy” to the recovery of Snake River fish (Duncan).  Following the release of this questionable report, NMFS was forced to appear in court where it was determined that the agency’s science was “arbitrary and capricious”.  NMFS then, in connection with the U.S. Army Corps, undertook the most scientifically rigorous analysis of a fish species and watershed that was ever conducted (Duncan).  The conclusion after four years of research was this: technical fixes cannot restore viable runs, but there will be an 80-100% likelihood of flourishing if the four dams of the Snake River are removed.  The removal of the Snake River dams brings up many social, political and economical issues that will be discussed throughout the duration of this paper. 


The people of a small town called Lewiston, Idaho, 400 miles from the ocean, decided they wanted to be a port town. In the time of big-government spending on projects that were often unnecessary, expensive, and usually environmentally destructive, this dream was to become a reality; in theory, anyway. The years 1960-1970 brought four new dams to the lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River that helps make up the Columbia River Basin. These four dams, the Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite, are considered run-of-the-river dams: they offer no flood control, irrigate only 13 agribusiness farms, and furnish less than 5% of the Northwest’s electricity (Tampa Tribune). These four dams, which were theoretically supposed to create an economy in this small town, have destroyed the balance of the ecosystem and hurt many of the societies of the region.


Due to these four dams, the Snake River has experienced a 90 percent plunge in its annual salmon run. In the 1960s, about 100,000 adult salmon returned to the river annually, this number fell to 10,000 after the dams were built (Tampa Tribune). Not only is this devastating on an environmental level, but also on the societal level. The salmon is a sacred symbol to many Native American tribes, particularly to the four Colombian River Indian tribes; the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakima, and Warm Springs (VanDevelder). The salmon is vital to these tribes' spiritual and cultural identity and well-being. The fish and its likeness are used in religious services, ceremonies, and celebrations, which serve to instill hope in all life, and are a continuation of traditional values from generation to generation (www.critfc.org). Salmon were also the source of a flourishing trade economy within the tribes, and were the preferred way to establish a livelihood. The fish still have an important nutritional value among the tribes as well, and with the population of salmon so low, a major source of traditional food is missing.


The Native American tribes value the right to fish for salmon so highly that they wrote this right into the treaties signed in 1855. In these treaties, it is stated that the tribes were entitled to exclusive rights to fish on the reservations and also equal rights to common fishing areas off of the reservations (www.critfc.org). If the salmon die off, the government would be breaking the treaty agreements, and could owe the tribes up to $12 billion (St. Petersburg Times).


The Lower Snake River dams affect not only the Native American people, but many people in the region. The salmon is an icon of the West, just like the buffalo, and it could end up going the same direction as that massive animal. There has been a $3 billion effort to save the salmon, from installing fish ladders and hatcheries to collecting young salmon and barging them downstream, all of which have not worked (Los Angeles Times). The dams' presence continues to decimate the salmon population.


The need to breach the four Lower Snake River dams goes beyond moral and ethical reasons, it is also more economically sound to remove the earthen portions of the dams than it is to leave them in place. The annual costs of the dams are $236.2 million, from managing and operating costs, to salmon restoration spending, to subsidies of irrigation and transportation costs (www.onrc.org). The annual costs of Snake River being restored are 149.5 million, from providing replacement power and transportation alternatives, to purchasing land, to restoration costs (www.onrc.org).  According to these calculations, restoring the Snake River would save approximately $87 million every year (www.onrc.org).


The initial cost of decommissioning the four dams is a steep $1 billion, but compared to the $3 that have already been spent by taxpayers to protect the salmon, this cost pales (Albany Times). The decommissioning of the dams would also increase the average Northwest utility bill, by about $1 to $5 (Albany Times), which is a small amount to pay to ensure the survival of a species.


Breaching the four lower Snake River dams could generate as much as $500 million into local economies every year (St. Petersburg Times). A restored salmon population would allow for an increase in commercial fishing, as well as over-the-bank-sales, which is the direst sale of the fish to the public by Native American fishers (www.critfc.org), which serves to help support Native American families and a traditional livelihood.  Increased recreational activities would also add to the $500 million boost. 


These four dams on the Lower Snake River have had many negative implications on the societies that live in the region. The decimation of the salmon population has destroyed a traditional way of life for the four Native American tribes in the area, by taking away a spiritual symbol and a livelihood. Non-Native Americans have also been affected by the loss of salmon, both economically and spiritually. The dams serve no vital purpose to society, and by removing them, there will be an 80-100% likelihood that the salmon runs will once again flourish.


There are several environmental problems associated with the dams present on the Snake River.  Some of the problems occurring are a decrease in biodiversity of the riverine system, loss of nutrients in the river, change in river flow, impacts to fisheries, and the destruction of natural habitats that is causing a decline in the native fish populations.  This will be the main focus of this section.  The native fish to Snake River are salmon and steelheads, which are getting closer and closer to extinction every day.  The Snake River fall Chinook salmon population is already on the Endangered Species List.  This paper will walk through the causes of the fish population’s declination.


Snake River salmon and steelheads have been a valued resource to the area for a long time.  They have provided food for both humans and other animals, while also providing recreation and commercial fishing.  Unfortunately, today these fish are not what attracts attention to the area anymore.  Instead of the fish drawing tourists into the area, it is now just the beautiful surroundings that nature blessed this area with.  In the early 1990’s, 70,000 salmon entered the Snake River yearly, this number now declined to an average of less that 1,000 salmon (U.S. Department of the Interior).


The Snake River fall Chinook salmon is one of five native anadromous fishes to the region.  They spend two to five years in the ocean, and then when they are mature they migrate back to where they were born, the Snake River.  Adult fish making their voyage back upstream to their spawning ground usually only run across the problem of actually reaching their destination.  The adults often have difficulty finding the man-made fish ladders to by pass the dam, making their voyage even longer.  It is of great importance that the fish make it to their spawning ground as soon as possible because they do not eat and loss of energy can be detrimental.  Approximately four percent of adult salmon are lost at each dam(U.S. Department of the Interior).


Once the adults reach the spawning ground the female’s dig redds (or holes) in the river gravel to lay their eggs.  Once the young hatch, they stay in the gravel until early spring, living off egg yolk stored in their stomach.  The young stay in the river for a short time before they start their migration back to the ocean around midsummer.  Snake River fall Chinook salmon are one of the last fish to migrate back to the ocean which puts them at more of a risk because of low water flows.


The young fishes return to the ocean is a dangerous one.  When fish reach a dam they can become stressed, injured, or die because of contact with turbines or the dam walls.  Fish also have a risk of super saturation going over a dam.  If too much nitrogen enters the blood stream, air bubbles form and this is very similar to what happens to scuba divers called “the bends.”  This could easily kill the fish.  Then they enter a small area where they encounter slack water pools.  These pools slow migration and create a great home for predators of salmon.  Lastly, reservoirs create changes in natural conditions.  Macroscopic plants are an important food source for the young salmon.    With all the change in the in the riverine system, these plants are diminishing.


Currently, the federal government is taking the young salmon out of the water and placing them in trucks.  Then they barge them down past the dams and let them free.  There are many problems with this.  First of all the fish can easily get injured when they are getting collected and transported from the river.  Once the fish are in the truck or barge, they have lost sense of where they are at, which makes it harder for them to migrate back to the spawning ground as adults.  While also making the situation they have been placed in stressful.  Lastly, when the fish are returned to the river they are completely confused and disoriented thereby making them easy prey.  On top of all this, the salmon still have more dams to pass; the more dams they have to pass the more risk that is present. 


These current actions are not increasing the salmon population, making it obvious that a new solution needs to be found; dam removal.  Removal of the four lower Snake River dams could greatly improve the salmon population, which would more than definitely take them off the Endangered Species List.  Scientists are now saying that the removal of these four dams could restore the salmon population to 80-99% healthy levels.  Even though saving the fish on the Snake River is the major force trying to get these dams removed there are other aspects involved. 


There are three main economical benefits from the removal of the four dams, all which could save the government money.  They are cost of repair, cost of barging and trucking, and taxpayer subsidies.  First, the four Snake River dams are coming up on some needed repairs soon.  These repairs are estimated at $250 million.  Although unsure of exactly what types of repairs are needed, this is a substantial amount of money.  Also, there is a seaport in Idaho that barges fish from Lewistown, Idaho to Washington’s Tri-Cities.  Maintaining this will cost $350 million over the next five years.  Lastly, only one out of the four dams, Ice Harbor, produces irrigation.  This dam contributes less than one percentage of the irrigated land in the Northwest.  These farmers are earning approximately $1.9 million per year, and receive taxpayer subsidies of $11.2 million per year(Columbia and Snake River Campaign homepage).  Extending pipelines to the new river level should not be that large of a problem considering that we are trying to save an almost extinct species. 


Although the dams on the Lower Snake River create an array of devastating environmental problems, the also produce electricity without creating carbon dioxide.  If the government decides to remove the four dams on the Lower Snake River, they will need to find some way to replace the lost energy.  This presents a difficult problem.  In solving the ecological problems created by the dams, we could replace them with carbon-dioxide generating power and exacerbate global climate change.  However, if efforts are consciously made to replace the hydropower with renewable energy, dam removal could minimize environmental effects while boosting the renewable energy market.


The Northwest Energy Coalition contends that the four Lower Snake River dams produce and average of 1136 Megawatts of power, or 5% of the region’s electricity (Glyde, 2000).   The Northwest Energy Coalition defines the region as Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and British Columbia.  If the dams are not removed, federal regulations will mandate mitigation technologies that will decrease the output to an average of 940 Megawatts (Glyde, 2000).  If the Lower Snake River dams are removed, this power must be replaced by another source.


Without local and national government intervention, the displaced energy could easily be replaced by increasing the production of current coal or gas power plants.  This would result in increased carbon dioxide and NOx production and subsequently contribute to global warming and poor air quality.  However, with public encouragement, the hydropower could be replaced by clean, renewable energy technology and energy conservation.


In April, 2000, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Northwest Energy Coalition released a joint study called “Going With the Flow:  Replacing Energy From Four Snake River Dams.”  The study examined three different scenarios for energy prices from 2001-2021:



Considering that energy consumers in the Northwest pay much less for their electricity than do consumers in the rest of the country, these monthly increases are fairly insignificant.  Furthermore, the increases in cost for the second and third scenarios are comparable.  However, the third scenario adds the benefits of cleaner air and an increased renewable energy market.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted the “Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study” in the fall of 1999.  As part of the study, the Drawdown Regional Economic Workgroup was created to evaluate power system replacement costs.  The group includes federal economists, states, tribes, regional stakeholders, and members of the Northwest Power Planning Council.  They only examined replacement of the hydropower with increasing the operation of existing power plants and building new natural gas plants.  Energy conservation and the introduction of renewable energy sources are not included in their study.  The study concluded the trickle-down effect of the hydropower replacement to be an additional $1.50- $5.30 increase in average monthly residential electric bills (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Study, Fall 1999). 


According to the results of the two studies, replacement of the hydropower losses by zero carbon dioxide emissions solutions is not only economically viable, but also environmentally profitable.




Columbia and Snake River Campaign homepage – facts on the Lower Snake River dams. http://www.columbia-snake.org/SOS-site/about/snake.htm


Glyde, Mark. “Clean Energy can Replace Four Snake Damns”, Northwest Energy Coalition Report.  vol. 19, no. 4, 2000 April/May. p.9 (accessed at http://www.nwenergy.org).


Snake River Dams.  Hearing before the Subcommittee on Water and Power of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate.  June 9, 1999


Marcus, David and Karen Garrison, Natural Resources Defense Council.  “Going With the Flow:  Replacing Energy From Four Snake River Dams”, April 2000. (accessed at http://www.nrdc.org).


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla Division.  “Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study”, Fall 1999.  (accessed at http://www.nww.usace.army.mil/). 


U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service.  ENDANGERED!  Past Heritage, Future Legacy.  September 1994.





Albany Times, editorial. July 26, 2000

Los Angeles Times, editorial. June 10, 2000

St. Petersburg Times, editorial. June 19, 2000

Tampa Tribune, editorial. July 25, 2000


VanDevelder, P. Earth Island Institute/Earth Island Journal. Sept. 22, 2000




BPA Fast Fact.  www.bpa.gov: 1998.


Duncan, David.  Second Coming.  Sierra: Mar/Apr 2000, 31-41.


Lovett, Richard.  As Salmon Stage Disappearing Act, Dams May Too.  Science: 23 April 1999, Vol 284, 574-5.


Reisner, Marc.  Coming Undammed.  Audubon: Sept/Oct 1998, 58-65.


Sims, Grant.  Tackling Salmon Problems.  National Wildlife: Oct/Nov 1994, 44-47.