Feds Keep Lower Snake River Dams Intact In Final Salmon Plan

Oct 1, 2020

The federal government’s decision to not breach the four Lower Snake River dams is getting mixed reactions around the region. 


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation adopted a plan earlier this week that would boost the amount of water spilling over the dams to try to help stabilize the fish population in the Columbia River system.

More water would spill for up to 16 hours a day under the plan, followed by up to eight hours of reduced spill to generate more hydroelectric power.

Kristin Meira, directs the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. It’s an industry group that represents farmers, loggers and others who make their living from the Columbia and Snake rivers. She said she’s pleased with the decision. 

“The goal is to make sure that we have a balanced approach on the river system for all of the things we expect from it and to protect our fish,” Meira said.

But Justin Hayes, director of the Idaho Conservation League, said past plans have failed to protect salmon and steelhead for years and that this one won’t be any different.

“Other ones have been litigated, it’s likely that this one will be litigated. This is just the status quo being sort of rolled back out as if it’s something new,” Hayes said.

The Nez Perce Tribe has also called the decision “unacceptable.”

“To us, the lower Snake River is a living being, and, as stewards, we are compelled to speak the truth on behalf of this life force and the impacts these concrete barriers on the lower Snake have on salmon, steelhead, and lamprey, on a diverse ecosystem, on our Treaty-reserved way of life, and on our people,” Chairman Shannon F. Wheeler said in a statement.

Salmon and steelhead numbers have plummeted in Idaho for a variety of reasons, including higher temperatures and declining oxygens levels in the rivers themselves and increasingly acidic oceans that kill off the fishes’ food supply as they mature into adults.

Some advocates have been pushing to breach the four Lower Snake River Dams for years to help forge a clearer, unimpeded path for them back to their historic spawning grounds. An environmental review from July found that doing so would significantly increase the number of Chinook salmon returning as adults.

But doing so would eliminate immediately available, clean hydropower that’s long provided the region with some of the cheapest electricity rates across the country -- something Hayes said could be offset by other renewable energy projects. Removing the dams would also force farmers to find new, more expensive ways to ship their harvest to coastal ports, which are then largely exported to the Pacific Rim.

Advocates still hoping to make such a significant change will have to focus their attention outside the courtroom towards Congress, which has the ultimate say over multistate waterways.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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