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Commentaries and editorials

Talk of Breaching Snake
River Dams a Red Herring

John McKern
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, March 21, 2014

Lower Granite Dam on the Lower Snaker River in Washington State backs up reservoir water to the Idaho border.

I understand why Idahoans want to breach the Lower Snake River Dams.

In "The Snake River, Window to the West" (1991), Tim Palmer traced the Snake from its headwaters in Wyoming 1,076 miles to the mouth near Burbank, Wash. The Snake is wild and free above Jackson Reservoir, but there the pristine river ends.

Jackson Lake was dammed for irrigation use in 1905, and taken over by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1907. Except for flows too high to capture in Jackson, Palisades, American Falls, Minidoka and Milner reservoirs, the entire Snake is diverted onto southeastern Idaho farms. The Snake is dry below Milner Dam most of the year.

The Lost River flows from the Saw-toothed Mountains under lava fields and restores the Snake at the Thousand Springs where irrigators, fish farms and fish hatcheries divert water. Downstream, Upper Salmon Falls, Lower Salmon Falls, Bliss and C.J. Strike reservoirs store water for Idaho farms.

From C. J. Strike to Brownlee Dam, the Snake isn't dammed, but the Owyhee and Malheur in Oregon, and the Boise, Payette and Weiser rivers in Idaho are. Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams provide Idaho Power Co. generation.

Below Hells Canyon are Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams. Of 1,076 miles of the Snake River, 508 miles are impounded by major dams, two thirds of those in Idaho. More dams impound Idaho and Oregon tributaries for irrigation.

According to Idaho law, human use, stock water and irrigation were the only beneficial uses of water. Hydropower was recognized later, but most early dams didn't have generators. Fish, wildlife and human recreation didn't count.

Irrigation water returns to the Snake warmed and loaded with silt, fertilizers and pesticides. Much of the silt settles in Brownlee, but more irrigation occurs in the Salmon and Grande Ronde valleys.

Water reaching Lewiston is warmed and loaded with silt, pesticides and fertilizers. The Clearwater adds cool water from Dworshak Reservoir, but according to irrigators, any water that reaches Lower Granite Reservoir is wasted.

Over 3 million salmon are expected to return to the Columbia in 2014 with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dams in place. That is far below the 12 to 16 million that returned when all the Snake River habitat and water was available for salmon.

Breaching the Lower Snake River dams is a red herring used to keep attention off Idaho dams and water.

John McKern, Walla Walla
Talk of Breaching Snake River Dams a Red Herring
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, March 21, 2014

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