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Commentaries and editorials

Recovery of Snake River Depends
on Quick, Bold Actions

by Tanner Josey
Idaho Mountain Express, March 20, 2024

Stand up for Idaho's fisheries and request that the
four lower Snake River dams be breached immediately.

Little Goose Dam on the Lower Snake River dam. Prior to human intervention in the Columbia River Basin, the Snake River produced 44% of the basin's spring-summer Chinook salmon, along with prolific runs of other migratory native fish species. Unfortunately, the fishery began declining when construction of the lower Snake River dams began in the 1960s. Snake River fish populations were once abundant and returned annually; today these fish aren't returning home.

The conversation about how to address the declining fish populations has been ongoing for over 20 years. Agencies involved in Columbia Basin operations have largely found that recovery can occur with dam infrastructure improvements coupled with hatchery fish production. However, courts have historically ruled that the dam operations are inadequate for recovery. Despite court rulings, actions that would enable recovery haven't been selected. If major actions aren't initiated soon, the survival of multiple fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act is in jeopardy.

The ESA is the guiding piece of legislation that directs federal agencies to establish recovery plans for listed species and their critical habitat. Numerous studies show the only way for widespread recovery is through breaching the four lower Snake River dams. In 2022, a National Marine Fisheries report outlined recovery actions that would meet ESA requirements and set the stage for healthy and harvestable populations of fish to return. The crux piece here is that the four lower Snake River dams are breached immediately.

In 1976, the lower Snake River Conservation Plan was enacted to mitigate the negative impacts from the dams. Hatchery fish production began throughout the basin. However, researchers have found that Snake River fish reproduce best on their own in native tributaries. Although hatchery production has supplemented populations, the fish are most resilient in healthy native ecosystems without human intervention.

The Snake River is home to five species of ESA-listed migratory fish, and without profound conservation actions their fate is doomed. Growing up in the Sawtooth Valley and Snake River Plains, I began to see these species as sacred. Their life cycle is extraordinary, they're native to my home playground, and indigenous peoples' relationship to them is inspiring.

Another facet to consider is the impact that climate change will bring to the Snake. Evidence suggests that climate change will further decrease water quality to the point that even breaching wouldn't enable populations to rebound. These fish depend on cold, flowing water, and if the dams aren't breached soon the populations may never rebound.

In general, this controversy splits along political party lines, though U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, promotes dam breaching. People must think deeply about the future they want to support; either promote a healthy southern Idaho ecosystem or watch the remains of a once prolific fishery disappear entirely. Saving the Snake requires critical—not political—thinking. The river must be freed. We, Idahoans, must think about the future we want for our state, the species that exist here, and the role that we, humans, play in the existence of species.

Proponents of the dams believe in the renewable energy and the irrigation ability that they provide and enable. Although the dams create hydroelectric energy and enable agricultural irrigation, the ecological impacts outweigh the benefits. Alternative forms of renewable energies have been declining in cost, which has created cost-effective solutions that don't compromise aquatic ecosystems.

Congressional approval is required prior to any breaching, and the Biden administration has been setting up the pieces for this to happen. Unfortunately, on Feb. 26, the Idaho Senate voted 29-5 in opposition of breaching. If we, Idahoans, don't demand breaching, the fate of the Snake River is sealed. We must request that governments value our natural resources, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the legal requirements of the ESA.

Stand up for Idaho's fisheries and request that the four lower Snake River dams be breached immediately.

Tanner Josey, a Hailey resident, is pursuing a master of science in environmental policy and management
Recovery of Snake River Depends on Quick, Bold Actions
Idaho Mountain Express, March 20, 2024

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