Snake River at dusk in Palouse Farm Country,
Washington. American Rivers Photo

“It is an odd dichotomy we have set for ourselves, between loving people and loving land.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer

BY CLAIRE CELLA

In the 1930s, the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin was considered one of the country’s greatest assets. As a watershed that spans seven states and part of British Columbia, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers proposed a project they said would harness its full potential for Western residents.

Between 1950 and 1970, a series of four dams were erected in Washington’s lower Snake River to the promise of increased hydroelectric power, irrigation capacity, navigation and commerce capabilities, and pollution abatement.

But opponents predicted the dams would destroy migratory fish habitats, exterminate iconic salmon and steelhead runs, while degrading pristine recreation and ignoring the area’s tribal and cultural significance.

The decades-long debate was rekindled in February when managing federal agencies released a draft environmental impact statement after four years of study, public input and stakeholder collaboration. In 2016 a U.S. District Court judge mandated the Army Corps, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration to prepare a new EIS after the court rejected, for the fifth time, the most recent federal plan and biological opinion meant to guide the operation of the Columbia River System dams in a way that does not jeopardize fish and wildlife species.

The EIS covers the impact of 14 projects along the Columbia River Basin—including the four Snake River dams—on the surrounding environment. In the executive summary, the agencies conclude with a “preferred alternative” in which removing or breaching the dams was deemed unnecessary in favor of increased habitat restoration efforts.

For others, however, breaching is the only way forward. Before dams, the Snake River once flourished, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring wild or damaged rivers and the leading dam removal organization in the U.S. More than 2 million wild salmon and steelhead once returned to spawn in the Snake and its tributaries each year. Today, these species are either extinct, endangered or threatened.

Scott Bosse, director of the Northern Rockies branch of American Rivers, argues that if we “… just removed the dams and unclogged the salmon and steelhead migration corridors giving them full and uninhibited access to the Snake River again, the habitat is already there and it doesn’t need to be restored.”

In addition to sharp salmon declines, the Puget Sound’s iconic southern resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2011. Wildlife biologists and whale advocates believe this dwindling population could recover if salmon runs (which the whales rely upon as vital to their diet) were restored, particularly in the Snake.

Over the years, the federal agencies have tried to mitigate the dams’ impacts: increasing fish hatchery operations, building safer turbine passage, developing more efficient spill operations for juvenile fish heading to the Pacific, and adding fish ladders for adult fish returning to spawn.

According to Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a nonprofit that advocates for hydropower in the Northwest, the technologies are some of the best in the world.

“What a lot of people don’t understand,” he explained, “is that many previously removed dams were walls in the river where no fish could pass. But these dams are different with much improved technologies.”

And while it’s easy to target the four Snake River dams, Miller continued, the problem for salmon is much bigger. “We’re still seeing declines in salmon populations without dams. It’s a problem beyond this river.”

“It’s not just about dam removal or fish recovery, it’s about promoting healthy natural ecosystems, fisheries, agriculture and a rebuilt power grid that depends on renewable energy.”

So even though breaching might be the best possible option for salmon, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined in their biological opinions over the years, there are no guarantees the fish would thrive due to other factors that influence their survival such as warming waters due to climate change, increased pollution and contaminants in the oceans, and predatory animals, Miller said.

But advocates, biologists and federal judges have asserted that these underlying issues merely increase the urgency we need to take in order to ensure healthy salmon levels.

“[The salmon] need the best possible chance to survival,” said Michael Peterson, the director of the documentary film Dammed to Extinction about the struggle to save the declining killer whales, “and shouldn’t we give them that?”

Dam passage, despite mitigation efforts, remains traumatic for juvenile fish and can lead to latent mortality or delayed death further down the river. And while there’s a role for hatchery fish, they also come with risks, says Michael Milstein, the public affairs officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Department.

“There was a big hatchery effort set up to mitigate those dams,” Milstein said. “But we have to walk a fine line in using the hatcheries to produce salmon to fully support the whales. We don’t want to dilute the remaining wild fish with hatchery fish genetics.”

Many dam proponents like Miller admit that dam breaching would be best for salmon but don’t have a clear vision for the future. “The outcomes are hard to forecast,” he argued, “so the harm of losing those dams would be a guaranteed loss to society and a hypothetical gain for salmon.”

These concerns are made clear in the EIS. Removing the dams would result in significant losses in hydropower, transportation and irrigation. In the short term, breaching would wreak havoc on the communities that rely on cheap, renewable electricity, cause rolling blackouts, eliminate irrigation for nearly 47,000 acres of farmland, and cut off navigation for the eastern ports along the Snake.

However, Bosse and others like Todd True, senior staff attorney at Earthjustice’s Northwest regional office, believe there is an alternative and an opportunity to find a solution between the dichotomy between people and land. It is possible to not only restore the river, but also invest in the communities that will be affected. Both True and Bosse cited numerous examples where dams have been successfully removed to the benefit of both communities and salmon: the Sandy, Elwha and Conduit dams, among others.

“We have a chance to bring the Pacific Northwest into the 21st century in a way that keeps everyone whole,” Bosse said. “It’s not just about dam removal or fish recovery, it’s about promoting healthy natural ecosystems, fisheries, agriculture and a rebuilt power grid that depends on renewable energy.”

True, who has represented American Rivers, the Nez Perce tribe, the state of Oregon and other conservation groups in five lawsuits against the federal agencies since 2001, argues that for salmon there’s no other alternative.

“The only thing the salmon need is a river,” True says.

The 45-day public comment period on the draft EIS ended in April. In June, NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will provide a biological opinion, analyzing the impacts the agencies’ plan will have on endangered and threatened species. From there the agencies will consider this opinion and public comments, release a final EIS and make a final decision in the fall. The record of decision will explain their conclusive determination about the dams and summarize any measures that will be taken to minimize or mitigate environmental harm.

In the meantime, the federal agencies are reading through more than 3,000 public comments, and the chinook salmon and steelhead are making their spring run, swimming upstream.

Claire Cella,a New York state native, never imagined herself living in the West. That was five years ago and now she can’t imagine living anywhere else.