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Are Snake River Dams
At Risk Again?

by Dave Murray
Waterways Journal, June 23, 2023

The agencies responsible for managing the locks and dams
have come out strongly in favor of keeping the dams.

Tidewater barges move up and down the Columbia River (Tidewater photo) The wars over the four dams on the lower Snake River, just before it joins the Columbia River -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite -- are heating up again.

Salmon advocates have long sought to have them decommissioned and taken down to protect spawning fish populations, especially salmon and steelhead trout, which have steadily declined since the mid-1950s. The fight has pitted salmon advocates against farmers, barge shippers and businesses and families enjoying the benefits of clean, cheap hydropower. The Biden administration has taken the side of the dam-busters.

About 10 percent of our nation's wheat exports and 60 percent of the Pacific Northwest's move down the Columbia-Snake River system. This past March, a contractor for the Walla Walla Engineer District completed the first channel dredging of the confluence between the Snake and Columbia rivers since 2015, taking the channel down to its authorized depth of 14 feet. According to a 2020 study by FCS Group cited by the Wall Street Journal, this will translate into at least 201 additional freight-train loads and more than 23 million ton-miles of new trucking annually -- at a huge carbon-emission cost.

The agencies responsible for managing the locks and dams -- the Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration -- have come out strongly in favor of keeping the dams. In 2020, in the face of strong pressures from salmon advocates, the Corps issued a Record of Decision that declined to support removing the dams but recommended additional measures to protect migrating fish. Fish ladders have resulted in a 97 percent survival rate of migrating fish above the four dams.

A September 2022 report issued by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), a White House Office, urged decommissioning of the dams. Under White House pressure, NOAA also issued a report endorsing dam removal, after it said in earlier studies in 2008 and 2014 that removal was no longer necessary to protect salmon.

The main concern for those wanting to maintain the dams is the cheap, clean hydropower electricity they currently provide for about 750,000 to 800,000 families. In times of normal demand, the lower Snake River dams produce as much annual energy (about 1,000 megawatts on average) as a large nuclear power plant. But they can produce up to three times that amount during demand peaks, powering up to 2.25 million homes.

What would be the costs of replacing that power? In 2021, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, who favored the dams' removal, proposed a controversial plan to replace all of their benefits at a cost of an estimated $33 billion. However, last year, a study done for the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the dams' electricity, at the CEQ's request, found the cost of replacing the power alone to be $75 billion.

Those costs are why Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, although reluctantly conceding the possibility of removing the dams one day, insist on having a credible plan for power replacement before removing them.

The Corps has invested more than $1.8 billion in fish passage improvements at the FCRPS dams since 2001, resulting in significant survival improvements. According to, a federal site, juvenile dam survival estimates of 86 to 99 percent have been shown at all Snake and Columbia River dams. The NOAA page for the Columbia/Snake River fisheries says "Snake River Chinook and sockeye [salmon] returns are trending upward" this spring, while summer steelhead [trout] are trending downward.

Dave Murray
Are Snake River Dams At Risk Again?
Waterways Journal, June 23, 2023

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