Saving 2021’s Most Endangered US River *

* Assessed by American Rivers, 2021

A NextGen Blog by Lauren Rose, University of Exeter.
All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Lauren graduated from the University of Exeter (UK) and University of Queensland (Australia) with a degree in Zoology. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Island Conservation and Biodiversity at the Jersey International Centre of Advanced Studies. She believes nature-based solutions best help our expanding human population live in harmony with the natural world. Following “Supporting the Return of Columbia River Salmon” – her earlier NWNL Blog post – this article explores the impacts and implications of opening the Lower Snake River Dams.

The Columbia River Basin, once home to one of the largest salmon runs in the world, has been heavily impacted by the construction of hydroelectric dams that reduce water quality and devastate salmon stocks. [mfn]American Rivers[/mfn] Whereas populations previously exceeded 30 million fish a year, only 1% of this former run currently returns.[mfn]The New York Times[/mfn] Mitigation strategies, including hatchery breeding and fish ladders, have been implemented to improve salmon populations and the basin’s overall ecosystem health. However, the success of these efforts is limited. Therefore, drastic plans have been proposed, such as the removal of four dams in Snake River. There is both growing support and opposition for a dam-removal remedy to the severe loss of salmon that causes environmental, economic and social impacts associated.

The Snake River

The Snake River is the largest tributary to the Colombia River. It flows over 1,000 miles from its Wyoming origin, follows the Idaho-Oregon border and finally runs into Washington to join the Columbia River.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn] In addition to providing a source of irrigation for crops such as potatoes and sugar beets, the Snake River once produced around 50% of the Chinook salmon that returned to the Columbia River Basin, allowing over 2 million salmon and steelhead to return annually to spawn in Snake River.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn],[mfn]Washington Environmental Council[/mfn]

Salmon are keystone species. They carry nutrients from high mountain streams down to the ocean; and they are an essential food source for over 100 species.[mfn]Native Fish Society[/mfn] The Snake River was once the largest salmon producer in the Columbia River Basin. However, today, salmon stocks are on the brink of collapse. If this occurs, it would decimate local ecosystems, and populations of local black bears and killer whales. Additionally, it would threaten Northwest Tribes who depend on fish for their cultures and identities. Healthy salmon stocks also contribute significantly to local economies, through fishing, recreation and tourism.[mfn]Washington Environmental Council[/mfn] In 2001 in Idaho alone, the Snake River provided $90 million from fishing. This value would more than double if salmon populations were restored their pre-dam levels.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn]

Boy fishing at Lyons Ferry Park, a confluence of the Palouse and Snake Rivers, WA

The 4 Lower Snake River Dams

The four dams now on the Snake River have created 140 miles of slack-water reservoirs, preventing adult salmon from migrating upstream to spawn and annually killing 50-80% of juvenile salmon on their perilous downstream journey to the ocean.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn] Following the construction of these four federal dams (1961-1975) on the Lower Snake River, wild salmon returns fell by over 90%, with fewer than 10,000 wild Chinook salmon returning to spawn.[mfn]Washington Environmental Council[/mfn],[mfn] Studies by American Rivers[/mfn] have shown that all four salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake River Basin will go extinct without urgent action. The multiple salmon and steelhead populations are protected under the Endangered Species Act; however, until real action is taken, this act is merely paper-protection. For years now, federal, Tribal and independent scientists have agreed that the most effective solution to restore salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin is to remove or breach the four dams on the lower Snake River: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite Dams.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn],[mfn]Native Fish Society[/mfn]

Earlier this year, Snake River was named by American Rivers as America’s Most Endangered River® of 2021, with the four federal dams identified as their main threat. Tom Kiernan, President of American Rivers, said the solution that remains clear to many would eliminate continuing with diminishing salmon runs, costly mitigation plans, rising energy insecurity and severed relationships with local Tribes. Instead, Kiernan explains, there should be more investment in effective salmon recovery plans that could generate a future of “abundance and prosperity for the region.”[mfn]Washington Environmental Council[/mfn] American Rivers warns that the Snake River requires urgent intervention in order to save it, and action must be taken now. Representatives from the Nez Perce Reservation, Umatilla Indian Reservation, Lummi Nation, Makah Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Tulalip Tribes and the Yakama Nation of Washington have all called on Congress and the Biden administration to remove the four dams on the Lower Snake River. In one letter to the White House and to Congressional representatives in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, they call the looming extinction of Snake River salmon “a moral failure of the highest order.”[mfn]Bellamy Pailthorp[/mfn]

NWNL discussed salmon’s values with Rebecca Miles, the Nez Perce Executive Director, 2014

Since the publication of these alarming findings, investments into dam modification have improved salmon populations, boosting their numbers to over 50,000 adults in 2005-2014. However, only 6,000 of these are wild-born salmon. This result through supplementation, although positive, isn’t a sustainable recovery and cannot reach optimal population numbers.[mfn]McDonough, L.[/mfn]

These dams also increase the temperatures of the still waters behind the dams, especially significant as these impoundments are already over-heated by climate change. In 2015, the basin experienced some of the hottest weather on record, with 96% of sockeye salmon perishing in the Snake River’s warming waters as they failed to reach cooler high-elevation tributaries. Today, the Snake River Basin holds 50% of the suitable cold-water habitat for Pacific salmon. Scientists estimate that by 2080, the Snake River Basin will hold two-thirds of the most climate-resilient habitats for salmon and steelhead on the US West Coast. [mfn]Washington Environmental Council[/mfn] However, the dams make these critically-necessary upstream tributaries largely inaccessible. With climate change placing further pressures on salmon populations, dam-free access to these cooler and more suitable waters is essential to the survival of our salmon species.

The Dilemma

Although the Snake River Dams were once valuable and essential infrastructures for the region’s economy, they have now become redundant. Since 2000, the Northwest electric grid has changed dramatically and so the minimal energy supplied by the dams is no longer required. They produce only 3% of the region’s energy; and their maintenance has become costly to American taxpayers.[mfn]Native Fish Society[/mfn] Now supporting the continued operation and maintenance of the dams, US taxpayers now receive a return of less than 50¢ for every $1 invested. Instead, the dams could be replaced by more efficient, inexpensive, and carbon-free alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has shown the region’s new renewable energy plans can meet predicted demand increases through 2030.[mfn]High Country News[/mfn] In fact, it is projected that these new energy projects will exceed the current power generated by these four dams.

Ice Harbor Dam’s juvenile fish passage on the Lower Snake River, OR

The other primary value of the dams used to be their facilitation of barges to transport local agricultural products such as wheat. However, demand for barge shipments has declined by 70% over the last 20 years and now the rail is farmers’ preferred transportation alternative.[mfn]Native Fish Society[/mfn]

Over $15 billion has been spent in an effort to save salmon across the Columbia River Basin, however, fish ladder and trucking projects have failed to fully recover even a single species. Despite efforts to build infrastructure to assist salmon migration past the dams, passage through these structures has caused over 70% of human-induced mortality in salmon.[mfn]Earth Justice[/mfn]

Salmon fishing weirs and fishermen’s boat in the Columbia River Basin, WA

While the removal of the dams is dismissed as being too expensive, data used to make these conclusions is largely out-dated. In the long term, opening the dams would be considerably cheaper, more sustainable, and very effective in restoring salmon populations.[mfn]High Country News[/mfn] Return of the Snake to being a free-running river would benefit salmon populations (increasing smolt-to-adult-returns in Snake River by 170%); fuel the regional economy; and support local biodiversity in both the Columbia River system and the Pacific Ocean.[mfn]Earth Justice[/mfn]

Many worry that without the dams flood risks would increase. However, the inverse is true. Sediments have been accumulating behind the Lower Granite Dam at a rate of 3 million cubic yards annually. This raises the level of the river and places the riverside cities of Clarkston and Lewiston at risk of flooding.[mfn]Save Our Wild Salmon[/mfn] If the dams are not opened or removed, mitigation investments, such as raising the two cities’ railroad and highway bridges, will be needed, costing taxpayers $87 million.[mfn]American Rivers[/mfn]

Calm waters of the Snake River Basin’s Lake Bryan, formed by Lower Granite Dam, WA

On February 6, 2019, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson released a $33.5 billion plan to remove the four Lower Snake River dams in order to save the fish stocks. While controversial for some, it has been applauded by many others. Simpson believes his plan will restore salmon populations while also funding new energy development and compensating farmers.[mfn]High Country News[/mfn] Simpson said he hopes to stay alive long enough to see salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho.” 


When considering large-scale plans such as removing or breaching four federal dams in the Snake River, it is important to think long term. One study found that by 2045, the high cost of maintaining the dams would exceed removal benefits by over $8.5 billion.[mfn]McDonough, L.[/mfn] Former benefits from those dams can now be replaced by today’s more cost-effective and efficient, clean energy sources.

One notably successful dam breach in the Pacific Northwest was that of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams in 2011, that facilitated the gradual recovery of entire downstream ecosystems as salmon returned unaided within just a year.[mfn]McDonough, L.[/mfn] Salmon declines serve as the major focus of this argument against the Snake River Dams, yet also threatened are entire ecosystems, hundreds of jobs, unique cultures and Indigenous rights. It seems clear – and imperative – that through collaboration, a win-win solution can be reached.

Mule deer, hiding their scent from predators at the Snake River’s edge, ID

With appropriate planning, those involved with Snake River management can create countless jobs and make history by implementing what would be one of the largest river restorations ever accomplished! Removing these dams will reclaim access to over 140 miles of Snake River and provide over 5000 miles of spawning streams for migrating salmon; thus building healthier fish stocks and watersheds.[mfn]Native Fish Society[/mfn] Rather than viewing these dams as a problem, let’s instead grasp this opportunity for change to set an example for long-term sustainable change – a benefit to both the environment and people. The solutions are there, we just have to be willing to try.

American Rivers. Columbia River Washington, Oregon, 15th May 2019.

American Rivers. Snake River, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, 1st March 2021.

American Rivers. Support salmon, justice and clean energy in the pacific northwest, 19th April 2018.

Bellamy Pailthorp. Northwest tribes call for removal of Lower Snake River dams, 25th March 2021.

Earth Justice. Why restoration of the lower Snake River is necessary to save wild salmon, 31st July 2020.

High Country News. Idaho Congressman proposes bold dam removal project on Snake River, 9th February 2021.

McDonough, L. “Free Willy: A Breach to Rejuvenate the Southern Resident Killer Whale” Seattle Journal of Technology, Environmental & Innovation Law

Native Fish Society. ACTION ALERT Remove the Lower Snake River Dams, Now!, 19th January 2021.

Save Our Wild Salmon. Why Remove The 4 Lower Snake River Dams?, 24th February 2021.

The New York Times. How Long Before These Salmon Are Gone? ‘Maybe 20 Years’, 20th September 2019.

Washington Environmental Council. Snake River named America’s Most Endangered River for 2021, 13th April 2021.

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