Sockeye Salmon Dying, Temperature Rises on Snake River Dams

Columbia River Basin sockeye salmon are migrating upriver from the ocean as they have for thousands of years, but new underwater videos captured by Columbia Riverkeeper show that this summer the fish have large chunks of flesh missing and bulbous growths across their bodies. The fish are rotting to death in a river system that is just too hot.

Sockeye salmon with large lesions suffers in Columbia River's hot water.

Credit: Columbia Riverkeeper

Salmon deteriorate at water temperatures above 68F. Right now, the reservoirs on the lower Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake River, are almost all above 70F and rising.

The federal dams on the Columbia River and lower Snake River are the main cause of hot water in these two iconic rivers, concluded a 2020 EPA report. The Army Corps’ own recent filings before the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board detail how the dams “individually and cumulatively impact temperature” by “holding back warm water” and “increasing the surface area compared to a free-flowing river,” in ways that “result[] in warmer surface temperatures.”

Lower Granite Dam

Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

During heat storms, heat waves, heat domes and drought years like the West is experiencing this summer, the shallow slow-moving reservoirs behind hydropower dams warm up fast. Certain tributaries and stretches are particularly vulnerable to this sort of heating. The lower Snake River winds through arid eastern Washington State and is one of the places in the Columbia River Basin where the water gets the hottest. On the lower Snake River last week, the reservoir behind Ice Harbor Dam registered 73.22°F. That is significantly above the level salmon can tolerate.

Dead sockeye hangs upside down in Columbia River.

Credit: Columbia Riverkeeper

When the lower Snake River gets very hot because of climate change, salmon die in astonishing numbers. Six years ago, almost the entire Snake River sockeye salmon run perished in lethal water temperatures before completing their migration. Another mass fatality year puts the species in serious peril of extinction. And climate change makes these events increasingly likely to occur.

In a desperate attempt to save the fish, NOAA fisheries is catching individual returning Snake River sockeye and bypassing the hot water by moving the fish in pickup trucks upriver. That last-gasp plan is a band-aid on a wound that requires much more serious attention.

We must reconsider the current configuration and operation of the river system. If we don’t reach a regional agreement, the federal courts will be left to decide. The State of Oregon; several conservation groups, including the NW Energy Coalition, of which NRDC is a member; and the Nez Perce Tribe went back to court last week to ask for emergency relief for endangered salmon that would start next summer, including more water spilled over the Columbia and Snake dams and drawdowns of some of the reservoirs.

Free the Snake Flotilla

Credit: Giulia Good Stefani/NRDC

Development of the Columbia River and Snake River into a series of slack-water reservoirs has had its serious benefits, including transportation, irrigation, and clean power. But it’s also had tremendous costs. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) wrote in a recent resolution, “the modern Northwest with its massive irrigation, hydropower, and storage systems was built on the backs of tribal peoples from the 1930s on, through the use and destruction of the lands, rivers and fisheries we have lived on for thousands of years.” The resolution asks President Biden, among other actions, to “restor[e] the lower Snake River by breaching the four lower Snake River dams.”

You can watch a short video about the plight of sockeye salmon narrated by Don Sampson of the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance here

Nizhoni Toledo is the Cultural Ambassador for the CTUIR Youth Council

Credit: Michael Hanson

A group of young, inspiring leaders from the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Youth Leadership Council recently organized a letter to President Biden. In their letter, the CTUIR youth leaders explain that their Treaty guaranteed them "that we would be able to fish forever." However, "[w]e can't fish if there aren't salmon left." The CTUIR Youth Leadership Council ask for the removal of the lower Snake River dams, and they also started an online petition that you can join here

Climate change coupled with the lower Snake River dams is more than sockeye salmon will survive, and looming extinction is cranking up the heat on the longstanding push to remove the Snake River dams. At the same time, the current Northwest heat wave is undeniably evidence that we need our clean energy resources more than ever before. During the recent extreme weather events, all the available large hydropower resources made significant contributions to meet peak demand. The question is—with reasonable effort, expenditure, and time for planning—could it be done a different way that does not sacrifice salmon or do irreparable harm to Northwest indigenous peoples’ ways of life? Of course.

Now is the narrow ecological and political window to plan for a regional energy transformation that can deliver reliable, affordable, clean energy while also retiring our most environmentally unsound Northwest energy projects. A collaborative solution forged in the region with leadership and secure funding from the Northwest congressional delegation is the path to help heal some of the injustices and deep inequities of the past. Our summers are just getting hotter, and the fight to prevent salmon extinction is desperate. It is also about so much more than a fish.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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