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Pattern of Inaccuracy Doesn't Stop
Dam Destruction Advocates

by Todd Myers
Spokesman-Review, April 29, 2022

The focus on temperatures is also odd because the Snake River dams
have a small, and diminishing, impact on temperatures.

Graphic: Wild Chinook runs to the Lower Snake River as counted at the highest dam in place at the time. (1961-2020) For the third year in a row, the number of Snake River spring chinook is set to increase, confounding environmental activists and politicians who loudly claim the fish are "nearing extinction." The numbers are not hard to find. Fish counts are available every day. There is literally no dispute about the data.

Why, then, are we so frequently bombarded with nonsense about Snake River salmon and the dams? It is a good example of how environmental fads take hold, leading politicians who claim to support "science" to become blinded by political echo chambers, ignore real-world data, and make wildly inaccurate claims.

The push to destroy the dams has become a political frenzy, with politicians and activists striving to outdo each other in baseless hyperbole. For example, former Spokane city councilman Ben Stuckart recently claimed that 99% of sockeye were killed by "high water temperatures on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers" in 2015. This claim is completely invented.

According to data from the University of Washington, 2015 is literally in the median of sockeye returns of the last 20 years. Sockeye returns on Columbia were actually better than the 20-year average. It is true that warm water can kill fish, and 2015 had the warmest water of the last two decades. But the claim that 99% died in the Columbia and Snake rivers is pure fiction.

The focus on temperatures is also odd because the Snake River dams have a small, and diminishing, impact on temperatures. Further, the Spring Chinook run, which is the focus of greatest concern, is complete by the time warm water temperatures arrive.

Dam opponents like Stuckart claim the dams "are designed to pool water behind them" and increase temperatures. That is true of some dams, like Grand Coulee, but the four Snake River dams are "run of river" dams and don't have large reservoirs. Research shows the impact on river temperatures from the Snake River dams is small and has declined over the past 15 years.

More importantly, the salmon most at risk are the Spring Chinook, which run when water temperatures are far below the 68 degrees that is the typical threshold for harming salmon. Even in hot years like 2015, temperatures at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia reach only 65 degrees at the very end of the run. Snake River temperatures don't affect the salmon activists claim to be worried about.

Ironically, the chinook most at risk from high water temperatures run in the fall, which the state of Washington considers near recovery.

This is a pattern with those fixated on dam destruction. They make a claim -- like salmon will be extinct in five years (populations are actually increasing) or that Puget Sound orca will go extinct unless we destroy the dams (NOAA Fisheries' science says this is wrong) -- and then when it turns out to be wrong, simply move on to the next argument, hoping the public forgets their pattern of inaccuracy.

There are things we can do to accelerate the recovery of Snake River salmon. For example, Washington's "State of Salmon" report notes, "Marine mammals and birds are eating more salmon, compromising salmon recovery." NOAA Fisheries says, "The best option for long-term recovery of both salmon and the whales is restoring habitat across a diversity of West Coast rivers." Ocean conditions also play an important role in the cycle of the salmon population. There is no better example of the impact this can play than the 2021 returns of Snake River coho salmon which were the largest in more than 40 years.

Salmon recovery is complex, with many factors at play. Simplistic arguments that can't even get the most basic facts correct distract us from real solutions to salmon recovery.

The real solutions, like reducing predation from birds and seals or improving hatchery production, aren't as sexy as destroying dams, but they are based on science. For the future of Snake River salmon, it is time to choose science over sex appeal.

Related Sites:
Biologists are keeping a watchful eye on sockeye migration by Idaho Fish & Game, 7/1/16

Related Pages:
FPC: Federal Dam Fishway Temperatures Longstanding Problem by Laura Berg, NW Fishletter, 7/5/16
Columbia and Snake Sockeye Decimated by 2015's Warm Rivers by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 4/13/16
Corps Report on 2015 Columbia/Snake Warm Water, Fish Die-Off Will Discuss Actions to Avoid Repeat by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 4/1/16
90 Percent of Snake River Sockeye Died Before Reaching First Snake River Dam by Courtney Flatt, NW Public Radio, 12/7/15
Warm Water Wreaks Havoc on Columbia River Fish by John Harrison, NW Power & Conservation Council, 8/12/15

Costly Dam Removal Won't Fix Puget Sound Salmon Needs by Todd Myers, Everett Herald, 11/21/21
Time to Stop Listening to Those Environmental Groups Who Cry Wolf by Todd Myers, Spokesman-Review, 6/25/21
Snake River Dams: Water Temperature by Todd Myers, Seattle Times, 7/6/20
Dams Not To Blame by Todd Myers, Lewiston Tribune, 10/12/19
With Billions More in State Budget, It's Time to Fully Fund Salmon Recovery by Todd Myers & David Troutt, Seattle Times, 4/11/19
Why Cut Salmon Recovery Budget? by Todd Myers, Tri-City Herald, 2/25/19
Scientific Priorities (not Marx) Should Guide Orca Recovery by Todd Myers, The Skanner, 2/5/19
Eastside Audubon's Dangerous Position on Salmon and Orca by Todd Myers, Redmond Reporter, 12/7/18
Dam Breaching Advocates Use Misleading Claims by Todd Myers, Walla Walla Union Bulletin, 11/11/18
Listen Breaching Snake River Dams Could Be "a Deadly Distraction for Orca" by Todd Myers, My Northwest, 10/10/18
Politicians on the Hook for Orca, Salmon Failures by Todd Myers, Crosscut, 8/23/18
The Immoral Reaction to an Orca Mother's Grief by Todd Myers, Tri-City Herald, 8/17/18
Feds Request Comments on Future of River Dams by Todd Myers, The Daily News, 12/21/16
Removing Snake River Dams is Bad for Economy and Salmon by Todd Myers, Seattle Times, 7/2/16
Subsidizing Green Industry is Like Propping Up a Kid's Lemonade Stand by Todd Myers, Seattle Times, 10/8/12

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Olympia and Seattle.
Pattern of Inaccuracy Doesn't Stop Dam Destruction Advocates
Spokesman-Review, April 29, 2022

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