the film
Commentaries and editorials

Frequently Asked Questions

on Bypassing the Lower Snake River Dams

by Dan Skinner
Idaho Rivers United - May 1999

  1. Aren't wild salmon runs declining all along the west coast, even in coastal rivers and streams that don't have dams? Doesn't that prove that dams aren't really the problem?

Yes, salmon runs along the Pacific coast generally have declined over the past few decades, but not all of them have. A 1996 American Fisheries Society report revealed 99 healthy salmon and steelhead stocks in the Northwest. Virtually all of these stocks reside in free-flowing rivers that are protect in wilderness areas or wild & scenic river corridors. The fall chinook run in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River is a good example.

No, that doesn't prove dams aren't the problem. The major factor that has led to the decline of coastal stocks is habitat degradation. This has come mainly in the form of commercial logging and urban expansion. The habitat degradation that has decimated Idaho's fish is of a different sort. It occurred when the four lower Snake dams blocked their historical migration corridor to the sea.

Finally, it's important to note the relative rates of decline when comparing coastal stocks to upriver stocks. While variations in coastal salmon numbers in healthy habitats have stayed within historical fluctuations, Idaho salmon runs - which have even higher quality habitat available to them - have plummeted to near-extinction levels. The only major difference between downriver and upriver stocks is the number of dams they must cross. Downriver stocks face four or fewer dams, while Idaho's fish must suvive eight dams.

  1. What about predators? Isn't it true that Caspian terns nesting on Rice Island in the Columbia River estuary eat one-quarter of all the salmon and steelhead smolts that pass through?

Predators like Caspian terns, gulls, cormorants, northern pikeminnow (squawfish), seals and sea lions do take a toll on Idaho's Salmon, but reducing or trying to eliminate predation would do little to recover our wild runs. Why? First off, Idaho's salmon and steelhead evolved in the presence of predators for thousands of years. Before the dams were built, Snake River salmon were extremely productive with far more marine mammals than currently exist along the Northwest coast. Plus, downriver salmon runs in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia and in the John Day River have held their own over the past two decades despite the fact that they face the same predators that Idaho's fish face. Simply put, predators are not what is limiting recovery for Idaho's fish.

As for the Caspian terns, they didn't colonize Rice Island until the late 1980s, over a decade after the bottom dropped out of Idaho salmon runs. That fact alone proves that terns are not what drove Idaho's salmon to brink of extinction. The Rice Island Caspian tern colony is, however, becoming an increasingly serious problem. By some estimates, this colony of 20,000 terns consumes anywhere from 25-40 percent of all the salmon and steelhead smolts that pass through the estuary. the best long-term solution to this problem would be for the Corps of Engineers to remove Rice Island and others like it. Those islands were created when the Corps began dumping dredge spoils in the Columbia River estuary, and until the islands are scraped away, the terns will continue to be both a problem and a scapegoat.

  1. I've driven along the lower Columbia River and seen dozens of Indian gillnets strung across the river, and I've heard about the high-seas driftnet fleets that are decimating Pacific salmon with their 100-mile long gillnets. Isn't the real problem overfishing?
It used to be, but it isn't any more. the harvest rate on Snake river spring/summer chinook used to be as high as 60 percent as late as the 1950s. Even with those high harvest rates, over 100,000 salmon still returned to their Idaho spawning grounds every year. Since the 1960s, harvest rates have been slashed to less than 10 percent. Similar harvest reductions have occurred with Snake River fall chinook, which are incidentally caught off the coasts of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. Also, the non-tribal commercial salmon fleet has been shut down off the coasts of Washington and Orgeon since 1994, and the high-seas driftnet fishery was eliminated by United Nations resolution in 1992. If overharvest was a major problem, salmon runs should have rebounded strongly as commercial fishing ceased. Instead, Snake River salmon and steelhead runs have declined another 90 percent over the past 30 years, coincident with the construction of the four lower Snake River dams.
  1. How long will it take to restore wild salmon and steelhead populations to harvestable levels once the dams are bypassed?
It depends on the species. According to both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the PATH (Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses) scientific group, Snake River fall chinook are 99 percent certain and spring/summer chinook are 80 percent certain to recover within 24 years. Steelhead likely will respond similarly to spring/summer chinook. Unfortunately, there are so few sockeye returning to Redfish Lake (only 1 fish returned in 1998) that they are unlikely ever to be restored to harvestable levels.

Although it will probably be one to two decades before there are enough returning salmon to remove them from the endangered species list, there will undoubtedly be noticeable improvements in most runs immediately. With the four lower Snake River dams removed, it is also very likely that sportfishing seasons on hatchery chinook salmon and steelhead will resume shortly, perhaps in just a few years.

  1. Will bypassing the dams increase or decrease the demand for southern Idaho irrigation water that is currently used to flush oceanbound smolts through the lower Snake River reservoirs?
Decrease. As a matter of fact, it's very likely that bypassing the dams will eliminate the demand for southern Idaho irrigation water altogether. That's because the major justification for "fish flushes" - to crate an artificial current that will speed salmon smolts through the lower Snake reservoirs - will no longer exist. That's why in 1994 the Idaho Water Users Association said that reservoir drawdowns would be the "salvation of Idaho agriculture." After the dams are bypassed, the only Idaho water that might be used to help salmon would come from Dwroshak Reservoir near Orofino. That water may be needed in severe drought years to help cool the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers when juvenile and adult fall chinook salmon are present.

Regrettably, most of Idaho's elected leaders oppose bypassing the dams and using Idaho water for summer flow augmentation, leaving extinction as the only realistic option. That strategy puts southern Idaho's water at great risk because in the end, it's going to have to be one or the other. If the dams are not bypassed, the National Marine Fisheries Service has warned it will seek and additional 1-3 million acre-feet of upper Snake basin water on top of the 2 million acre-feet of water that Idaho already contributes. Numbeous studies have shown that flow augmentation provides significant benefits to fall chinook salmon by increasing river flows, decreasing migration time and cooling water temperatures.

  1. If the dams are bypassed, how will irrigation and flood control be affected?

The four lower Snake dams were not designed or authorized for flood control. they are "run-of-river" dams that were built primarily for barge navigation. This means the amount of water that flows into the reservoirs is roughtly equal to the amount that flows out of them. Without the ability to store large amounts of water, dams such as these cannot hold back floods.

Only one of the lower Snake dams, Ice Harobor, provides irrigation for only 13 farms totaling 35,000 acres. Since the lower Snake dams don't have the ability to store large amoutns of water due to their run-of-river design, irrigation takes place by pumping water from the reservoir up to the farms on the canyon rim. After the dams are bypassed, irrigation could still occur simply by extending the pipes down to the new river level and increasing the power of the pumps. Interestingly, the irrigation system for these 13 farms is subsidized by federal taxpayer dollars to the tune of about $9 million annually (Oregon Natural Resource Council, 1998). Consequently, the least expensive way to mitigate those 13 farmers would be to buy them out on a willing seller basis or have them convert to dry-land farming.

  1. If the dams are bypassed, won't the silt that has accumulated behind Lower Granite Dam (the uppermost lower Snake River dam) wipe out salmon and steelhead runs?
No. According to the Army Corps of Enginers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, anyh adverse effects from increased sedimentation are likely to last only a few years. In addition, increased suspended sediment levels will likely have negative impacts only on returning adult salmon. Increased sedimentation during the spring runoff may actually help outmigrating juvenile salmon by providing them with more cover form predators like nothern pikeminnows and Caspian terns. Even in the first few years after the dams are bypassed when sedimentation will be most severe, Idaho's salmon and steelhead will be much better off in the free-flowing river than they would be if the dams and reservoirs remained in place.
  1. Won't bypassing the dams devastate the local economy around Lewiston by closing the Port?

No. While it's true that bypassing the dams will close the seaport of Lewiston, the seaport is just a small part of the Port of Lewiston. The port of Lewiston is an industrial park that includs grain elevators, barge companies, logging yards, trucking terminals, cement companies and other businesses. The vast majority of these businesses do not rely on the navigation waterway. The Port of Lewiston includes 14 businesses that employ a total of 275 people. The seaport itself employs only about 40 people.

Although river navigation appears to be an important economic benefit of the dams, it is yet another situation where taxpayers are subsidizing a select few. According to a 1998 Oregon Natural Resource Coucil report, the overall cost of shipping a ton of goods from Lewiston to Kennewick, Washington is $13.89, but grain shippers pay only $1.23. In other words, taxpayers and ratepayers subsidize grain shippers to the tune of $12.66 a ton. Shipping by rail costs only $1.26 per ton without public subsidies. In addtion to this generous subsidy, the Port of Lewiston relies on $522,000 property tax that is levied on Nez Perce County residents. the bottom line is that the navigation waterway could not exist without large taxpayer subsidies.

  1. If the dams are bypassed, how will my electric rates be affected?
It depends on where you get your power. For the vast majority of Idahoans who get their power from Idaho Power, Avista or PacifiCorps, any rate increases would amount to pennies per month. If you get your power from a rural electric cooperative that bys all of its power from BPA (Bonneville Power Administration), rates could increase by as much as 4 to 12 percent. to put that into proper perspective, Idaho Power raised its ratges b 7.5 percent in 1998 because it was a low water year and hardly anyone blinked an eye.

It's worth remembering that the lower Snake dams were not built to churn out large amounts of power like Grand Coulle or John Day dams. They were built primarily for barge navigation to Lewiston. That's why disabling them would have minimal impacts on regional energy production.

  1. Is bypassing dams the only thing we need to do to restore Idaho's salmon and steelhead?
No. There are several other measures that need to be taken to ensure recovery of Idaho's salmon and steelhead runs. All four H's Hydro, Habitat, Harvest, and Hatcheries - need to be addressed, along with predation.

Habitat restoration is still needed in places like the Clearwater basin where commercial logging has silted up spawning beds, and in the Lemhi, Pahsimeroi and East Fork Salmon Rivers where overgrazing and agricultural diversions are a problem. Harvest of listed Snake River fish has already been cut to the bone, but some additional reductions in incidental harvest of Snake River fall chinook and B-run steelhead may be possible in the Columbia River providing it complies with tribal treaty obligations. Hatcheries are in dire need of reform to better protect genetic diversity, reduce the risk of disease and create fish that are more well-adapted to life in the wild. Predatorssuch as Caspian terns, cormorants and gulls in the Columbia River estuary should be brought under control by removing the artificial islands that provide them nesting habitat.

The bottom line is that bypassing dams is not the only action that needs to be taken, but unless the dams are bypassed, all other recovery actions will likely end in failure.

  1. Why can't we build a fish pipeline or canal along the lower Snake River to get smolts to the ocean and adults back to their spawning grounds?

The biggest problem with a salmon canal or pipeline is getting both juvenile and adult fish into and out of them. the Corps of Engineers already has a hard enough time siphoning ocean-bound smolts into the bypass systems at the dams despite spending hundres of millions of dollars on iron curtains, floating surface collectors and moving screens. A fish pipeline would have to have on-ramps and exits at every tributatry stram, and a canal would have to be accessible to fish entering from both sides of the river. That would not only be unfeasible, but cost-prohibitive. Also, the lower Snake River flows through a very steep canyon that couldn't accomodate a salmon canal unless it was literally built into the cliffsides - and extremely expensive proposition. The bottom line is that independent scientists say futther tecno-fixes are unlikely to work. What we really need to focus on is restoring more natural river conditions.

  1. Why can't we just increase hatchery production to compensate for declines in our wild salmon and steelhead runs?
We've tried that, but it hasn't worked. The original goal of building hatcheries was to compensate for the loss of wild runs. Now hatchery runs are declining because of the same eight dams that killed off most of our wild runs. Hatcheries have failed to maintain viable populations even while pumping out more than 50 million smolts annually at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. The best bet for recovery is in the wild fish that are genetically - equipped to survive in the face of such massive obstacles.

Hatchery fish are biologically inferior than their wild counteparts, extremely susceptible to disease, expensive to produce and reliant on wild genes to keep going. Futhermore, the Endangered Species Act requires that wild salmon and steelhead runs be restored. Hatchery fish don't qualify.

  1. Won't we have to build new, higher-pollution power sources if we bypass the dams?
No. the lower Snake dams produce less than 5 percent of the Northwest's power in an era when the Northwest is awash in electricity. On top ot that, the lower Snake dams can only operatte at maximum capacity during the spring runoff, when the Northwest needs it least. consequently, much of this power is exported to California via the electrical grek.

According to a 1996 Northwest Power Planning Council report, the region could easily make up the lost power production through conservation. the lower Snake dams provide 1,139 average megawatts of power annually, while conservation measures over the next decade alone could provide an additional 1,500 average megawatts. As the Northwest's population continues to grow in the coming years, the development of clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power should be encouraged.

  1. If salmon are so endangered, why can I still buy it in a can at my loca grocery store? As long as there are sitll healthy salmon rusn in Alaska and Canada, isn't that good enough?
Salmon, like other plan and wildlife species, are broken up into what are called Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs). Each salmon ESU is categorized as a separate species because it is uniquely adapted to its local environment. In other words, snake River sockeye salmon are considered a separate species from Frasedr River (British Columbia) sockeye slamon or Briston Bay (Alaska) sockeye salmon. One cannot simply transplant salmon from the Kenai River in Alaska to the Salmon River in Idaho and expect them to survive.

Recovery of wild Snake River salmon and steelhead is not only mandated by the federal Endangered species Act, but also by the Northwest Power Act (1980), the Lower Snake River Compensation Act (1976), the US-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty (1985) and the Stevens Indian Treaties of 1855. That's why we cannot simply let them go extinct.

  1. Once the lower Snake dams are bypassed, what's to stop salmon advocates from removing dams in Hell's Canyon, the middle and upper Snake, and the Columbia River?

Bypassing the lower Snake dams is a compromise plan. The current recovery goal is to restore wild salmon and steelhead runs to pre-dam (1950s) levels when the Columbia basin had a fair balance between hydropower development and harvestable, self-sustaining salmon runs. Recovery is also limited to areas where they currently exist (in the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers and the Snake River below Hell's Canyon Dam). If the goal was to restore salmon runs to pre-Lewis and Clark levels or to areas where they no longer exist, additionao dams would have to go.

Dams are not sacred monuments like the pyramids of Egypt. They are industrial tools that are built to serve society's needs. When they cost society more that they benefit it, they should be closed down. A good analogy can be drawn beween dams and businesses or military bases. Sometimes businesses close down factories to strengthen the company's economic position. That doesn't mean the business wants to go bankrupt. Like wise, sometimes congress shugs down military bases in the name of national security. Again, that doesn't mean we want to eliminate our entire military. The bottom line is that dam removal isn't an all or nothing proposition.

Dan Skinner
Frequently Asked Questions on Bypassing the Lower Snake River Dams
Idaho Rivers United Pamphlet May 1999

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation