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Commentaries and editorials

Take Out the Lower Snake River Dams

by Kayla Chaffey
Idaho Mountain Express, November 27, 2013

Graphic: Snake River Sockeye adults counted returning at Lower Granite Dam (1954-2012) As a young environmentalist, I strongly believe that the four lower Snake River dams should be removed.

For tens of thousands of years, salmon and steelhead have been an important part of Idaho's natural world. Over 2.5 million wild salmon once populated the rivers and streams of Idaho's Snake River basin. The Native Americans used to say, "You could walk across on the salmon's backs from one side on the river to the other if you tried."

Around 50 years ago, even after decades of habitat destruction and gross overfishing, wild salmon and steelhead still returned to their birthing place in numbers averaging around 130,000. Today, according to Idaho Rivers United, about 30,000 wild and hatchery fish return each year to spawn, which is less than 2 percent of the original 2.5 million. One reason for this steady decrease of Snake River salmon is the four fish-killing dams (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite) located on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state.

I love fish, and wild salmon and steelhead are truly a wonder of mother nature and species worth saving. These fish are anadromous—they spawn in fresh water, grow to maturity in the salty ocean, then travel 500-900 miles and over 6,000 feet in elevation to return to their natural freshwater spawning streams, like the Salmon River in the Sawtooth Valley. After this long journey, adult salmon reproduce and die, completing the life cycle. Their decaying bodies provide nutrients to feed their eggs, other fish and animals, and fertilize the alpine meadows and forest that we all enjoy today.

Fishery scientists have been monitoring wild salmon and steelhead populations since the 1950s, discovering that they have been declining steadily. By 1986, all of the Snake River's coho salmon were extinct and by 1997 Idaho's four surviving wild salmon and steelhead populations were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The role that dams and reservoirs, habitat, hatcheries, harvest, predators and the ocean play in salmon survival is well understood. In order to restore Snake River salmon populations and maintain a healthy ecosystem, scientists and environmentalists have agreed that the dams must be removed in order to prevent our wild salmon from spiraling into extinction.

Extensive studies completed in 2000 show that the four lower Snake River dams were the most significant factor preventing salmon from returning home to their Snake and Salmon River basin habitat. These dams are high cost/low value, have little to no storage capacity, and only produce 4 percent of the Northwest's electricity. In fact, they reach a maximum capacity only a couple days out of the year during spring snow melt. While it is worthwhile to note that these dams do provide barging to and from Portland for regional crops, this transportation system is replaceable. Removal of the four dams on the Lower Snake River would only require the addition of a hundred and forty miles of railroad shipping, with much of the infrastructure already in place.

Dam removal has worked before and can work again. The removal of the Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River in 1934 resulted in immediate salmon and steelhead population recovery. I am 100 percent sure that removal of the four Snake River dams is perhaps the only way to protect these remarkable fish and ensure a healthy fish population and riverine ecosystem for years to come. The federal government has already spent over $8 billion on failed salmon recovery efforts. It's time to take charge and remove these dams. Let's ensure salmon and steelhead population recovery and get them off the threatened and endangered species list. Do it now. Long live the salmon!


Kayla Chaffey is an eighth-grader at the Sage School in Hailey.
Take Out the Lower Snake River Dams
Idaho Mountain Express, November 27, 2013

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