In the Columbia–Snake River Basin, Salmon Are Losing Their Way

As the fish disappear, native peoples are looking for solutions lest they lose a way of life too.

The Lower Granite Dam and hydroelectric plant on the Snake River in Washington have been proposed for removal to aid the recovery of salmon populations.

Credit: Greg Vaughn/Alamy

Julian Matthews spent his childhood catching salmon along the Lower Snake River with his father and grandfather. The regular fishing trips were “an important part of the culture” for the Nez Perce tribe, he says. And though Matthews still casts a line at the traditional fishing sites of his ancestors, he worries that the fish, a staple in indigenous diets, may not be around for future generations to catch.

The Columbia–Snake River Basin was once the most prolific salmon habitat in the world, but today its salmon and steelhead numbers have plummeted. In the 1950s, almost 130,000 adult salmon and steelhead returned to the Snake River in the spring and summer to spawn, but by 2017 that number had dropped below 10,000. Today 13 populations are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and all four salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake River Basin are at risk of extinction, according to the nonprofit Save Our Wild Salmon.

Matthews and other members of the Nez Perce tribe point to four dams on the Lower Snake River—Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor—as part of the reason for the decline. They worry that the fish could disappear altogether if the dams are not breached or removed.

“The salmon cannot speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them, and we have to do it before the salmon go extinct,” says Matthews, who serves as treasurer for Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, a nonprofit Nez Perce organization in Lapwai, Idaho.

Advocates of salmon recovery cite a variety of current threats that are compromising the future of the fish’s populations: warmer rivers, increased predation, and impacts from salmon farms, which can interfere with the health and environment of wild fish, to name a few. But all these threats, some say, would be reduced if we eliminated barriers—like dams—that impede migration and access to important breeding habitat.

“The problem with a lot of the other [restoration] projects is they lack long-term durability,” explains NRDC staff attorney Giulia Good Stefani. “We are in an urgent situation, and we need to stop looking for short-term fixes and to invest in improved ecosystem function. Removing the Lower Snake River dams would open up access to the best and most climate-resilient salmon spawning habitat remaining in the continental United States.”

A Chinook salmon at McNary Lock and Dam on the Columbia River
Credit: Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other groups, has confirmed that dams can impact salmon survival. On the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the structures’ concrete barriers cut the fish off from important spawning habitat. Beyond that physical barrier, the dams slow the flow of the river and thereby increase risks of predation (particularly for juveniles, who cannot migrate as quickly); they also exacerbate the effects of climate change, since the stagnant water behind the dams can warm to lethal temperatures.

Dam Removal Spawns Controversy

In Washington State, the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in 2012 and 2014 provided salmon access to an additional 71 miles of upstream habitat. Research showed that the fish migrated farther into the river and its tributaries following removal, with 58 Chinook nests identified above the dam removal sites in 2016.

“Salmon are prolific and resilient if we give them access to the rivers,” says Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. “We need to make some big changes or we’ll lose these amazing species within our lifetime.”

Work on the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, part of the Elwha River Restoration in Olympic National Park near Port Angeles, Washington, March 2012
Credit: Kevin P. Casey/Reuters

Meanwhile, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been outspoken opponents of dam removal. They note that big changes to existing infrastructure could lead to increased costs for public utility customers.

Advocates and opponents have been ensnared in lawsuits for more than two decades. In the most recent ruling, in 2016, a federal district court judge rejected the government’s salmon protection plan—or “biological opinion,” required under the Endangered Species Act—that would keep the dams in place, for the fifth consecutive time. The ruling included a court-ordered request for a new environmental analysis of the impact of the dams on salmon populations, noting that “the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul.”

In response to that decision, several lawmakers in Congress fought back with what conservationists called “the salmon extinction act.” The bill, H.R. 3144, crafted intentionally so the dams would be left alone through 2022, passed the House in April, with its sponsors citing the dams’ many “economic contributions.”

Dam removal advocates say that the legislators’ energy argument is shortsighted. A 2018 report released by the NW Energy Coalition found that other renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, could replace the hydroelectric power produced on the Lower Snake River dams without sacrificing reliability or triggering major environmental costs or rate hikes. “We now have proof that we don’t have to make the tradeoff between reliable, clean, affordable energy and the recovery of fish,” notes the group’s communications director, Sean O’Leary. “It changes the fundamental nature of the debate.”

Fishing for Progress

Some groups fighting for the survival of the Columbia–Snake River Basin’s salmon are taking a more limited approach to dam removal, asking BPA to get rid of only a select few. Recently, the Upper Columbia United Tribes came together to address environmental and cultural issues threatening their communities and their land. The group is a coalition of five local tribes—the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians. They support removing the Lower Snake River dams but argue that the Chief Joseph Dam and Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River’s main stem likely need to stay.

“These dams generate a significant amount of power in this region, and removal would be met with extreme opposition,” explains John Sirois, committee coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes. “We’re hoping to accomplish our goal [of restoring salmon runs] without that fight.”

One way of achieving at least a temporary solution, Sirois and fellow community members say, is to install fish passages on the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee. But the tribes have also conducted research, which they expected to release this fall, that shows there are other viable recovery tools as well. One option is a “salmon cannon,” which uses negative air pressure in rubber tubes to shoot fish 1,000 feet over a 350-foot incline to get adult salmon above the dams to their breeding grounds. Another is an apparatus called a floating surface collector that transports juvenile salmon downstream for migration. Yet BPA resists even these less intrusive (and less expensive) options, Sirios says, since the utility doesn’t want to alter river flow to allow for fish passages.

“Eventually those dams will come down,” Sirois says. “For now, we need to find ways to move fish.”

Some interventions to aid the rivers’ flow have seen moderate success. In 2017, a U.S. District Court judge in Portland, Oregon, ruled that more water must spill over the dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake between April and mid-June to help juvenile salmon travel downstream. Increasing spill—letting more water flow over the dams instead of passing it all through turbines to generate electricity—allows more juveniles to successfully migrate downstream and offers a “fast, short-term solution” to help salmon, according to Stefani.

A Nez Perce member fishing for Chinook salmon using traditional methods along the Rapid River near Riggins, Idaho.
Credit: Bill Schaefer/Getty Images

But this incremental progress doesn’t allay the concerns of the native peoples of the Rockies and Pacific Northwest yearning for a long-term restoration plan that will preserve a treasured pastime and dinnertime staple. Sirois notes that salmon once made up an estimated 80 percent of the diet of tribes along the Columbia River; he calls diminishing salmon populations a food justice issue. “Having our natural food back would do so much for us culturally, spiritually, and nutritionally,” he says. “Salmon need to be back in their original home, and it’s up to us to make it happen.”

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