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Snake River Dams are
Diminishing the Salmon Population

by Sienna Boucher
San Juan Islander, December 3, 2021

"We're witnessing the collapse of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem.
It was dependent and built upon the back of the salmon."

Little Goose Dam on the Snake River. A federal report rejects the idea of removing Snake and Columbia dams to save endangered or threatened salmon. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times) The Snake River, once abundant with salmon, is becoming barren as it is filled with dams. While this industrialization is devastating to the salmon, a critical part of the ecosystem, it consequently is also the source of one of the largest challenges that the southern resident Orcas are facing today.

Jim Waddell is a civil engineer who has spent his entire professional career with the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams in the Northwest.

"I realized that if we didn't breach the Snake River dams, then it would be almost impossible to recover salmon," Waddell said. "You might be able to keep them from becoming totally extinct, but you could not recover them." He had this realization back in 1999 working on an environmental impact study in Walla Walla (USACE) for the Snake River.

There are currently 18 major dams on the river system, which provide electricity, irrigation, and inland shipping. These dams, however, are very expensive to maintain. There have been many proposals to remove four of these dams, all located on the lower Snake River. Billions of dollars have now been spent on salmon mitigation projects such as new hatcheries and even hauling semi-trucks full of juvenile fish past the dams.

In Idaho, both political parties have expressed care and concern over the issues related to the salmon.

According to the University of Washington, the Snake River was once filled with over 100,000 salmon each year (bluefish corrects: this should say "millions of salmon each year") and today numbers have decreased to less than 10,000. With less salmon available the entire regional food web suffers. This directly impacts the southern resident orca whales who eat primarily these salmon. These whales are also accumulating toxins in their blubber. Waddell said these toxins stem particularly from eating the fish in the Salish Sea, which absorb the micro toxins more easily. The northern resident orcas, which rely heavily on seals for food rather than salmon, are increasing in population, where their southern neighbors are dwindling in their numbers.

When the orca whales are healthy, said Waddel, there is no need for them to burn the fat that contains the toxins. When they are starving, however, they metabolize the fat which causes the toxins to begin to wreak havoc on their health.

"We're witnessing the collapse of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem," Waddell said. "It was dependent and built upon the back of the salmon."

Waddell said that when he first proposed the idea of breaching the dams that his concept was viciously shot down.

"Now, the big gorilla in this debate is hydropower. Okay, so these dams, hydropower, have a 3000 megawatt nameplate capacity," he said. "But because of low river flows in the Snake, the actual average generation is less than 1000 megawatts. So we only get about a third of the capacity out of those dams."

He remarked that while many environmental groups argue that they would need to replace the hydropower lost from the dam, that the Pacific Northwest actually has a surplus of power and that surplus would remain even without the Snake River.

He also argues that one of the best motivating factors for supporting breaching of dams is that the decision does not have to be passed through congress, but can be handled between the Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers. The engineering of it is also quite simple and cheap, he said.

Despite backlash, Waddell said he feels very confident in his position, based on the ample time spent in Washington DC working for the White House doing policy work as a senior advisor for the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Over 20 years since he became an activist for this idea, he still strongly supports breaching the dams, even after he dropped his involvement for a short period of time around 2007.

It was when he moved to Port Angeles in 2009 that he decided to hop back on the issue. When a science symposium occurred in 2009 regarding the dams, he decided to join. During this symposium, they discussed the economic value of dams, where Waddell realized that his efforts and economic rational for dam breaching had not made much of an impact.

"In the course of the big meeting of over 100 people, two speakers spoke of the Snake River dams. They erroneously said they had a high economic value, and therefore, were unlikely to be breached anytime soon," Waddell said. "And I just was flabbergasted because I knew that was wrong. And so I ran around to the front of the meeting hall and grabbed the mic at the end of the presentations, and told the audience that, no, these dams are a travesty from an economic standpoint. And they're killing salmon. You can't, you can't recover salmon with those four dams."

Unbeknownst to Waddel, he was being filmed by a crew from Patagonia, and his mic-grabbing moment went on to be an important part of the Patagonia film titled "Damnation."

This attention brought him back into the spotlight and people began to request that he do presentations and briefings on the dam breachings, which gained him more traction and increased his momentum.

"If the Snake River collapses, our fisheries will collapse as well," he said. "And we are already seeing this little by little."

In order to save the salmon, the southern resident orcas, and the balance of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, Waddell urges people to research and consider the benefits of dam breaching. Dam Sense is a Port Angeles organization that provides details about dam breaching along with ways to get involved.

"This is the doomsday scenario for not only salmon, but for the southern resident killer whales as well," said Waddel. "It can only be solved through breaching."

Sienna Boucher
Snake River Dams are Diminishing the Salmon Population
San Juan Islander, December 3, 2021

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