Can dam removal save the Snake River?

See the river as the climate changes, development continues and consequences grow with inaction.

Through millennia of lava flows and erosive flooding in the Columbia Basin, a river emerged. The Snake River writhes some thousand miles from Wyoming through southern Idaho, forming the Oregon border before curving into southeast Washington, where its waters meet the Columbia River and then, eventually, the ocean. It journeys from the Rocky Mountains through the desert, punctuated by dams.

 

A river is not a body, but people have always seen a resemblance. It has a head(waters), veins and arteries. Salmon enter the Snake River the same as nutrients to a living being: through the mouth. After swimming miles from the Pacific Ocean to the cold home waters from which they came, they spawn and die, leaving empty-eyed carcasses bobbing at river’s edge. Studies have shown how dead salmon contribute to the abundance and diversity of a region’s birds, the richness of the soil, the greenness of a forest’s canopy. The deep intertwining of salmon with the ecosystem beyond the riverbanks is something the Nez Perce Tribe has always known. But, partly due to the dams, “that gyre of nutrients that should be flowing back and forth is stopped,” Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, told High Country News last fall.

The river is changing, its salmon stocks at the edge of extinction and drought depleting its waters — its lifeblood, as well as that of its basin’s crops. And for decades, people who care about the river and rely on it have debated removing four of the lower Snake River dams — the four that most impact the restrained waterway.

  • Mike Tuell, deputy director of production for the Nez Perce tribal hatcheries, fishes with a dip net on Rapid River, in the Snake watershed.

  • An 1855 treaty between the U.S. and the Columbia River Basin tribes guaranteed tribal fishing rights. In 2020, however, the Nez Perce were only able to catch 3,982 salmon in the spring and summer, not even two fish per tribal member. Salmon can no longer reach other tribes at all, including the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe. Johnson Ancheta (Nez Perce) cleans a coho salmon he caught in Lapwai Creek, a tributary of the Snake River.

IN EARLY 2021, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson announced a $34 billion plan for dam removal. After interviewing hundreds of people in the region and surveying the costs, existing reports, Endangered Species Act requirements and climate change projections, Simpson, a Republican, said in a virtual presentation that “in the end, we realized there is no viable path that can allow us to keep the dams in place.” In an act of political imagination, his proposal asked: “What if the dams came down? What compromises can community leaders make? Fears aside, what is possible?” The proposal offered answers, and it felt significant: It was comprehensive, and it came from a member of Congress. “It had never happened before,” Dave Johnson, manager for Department of Fisheries Resources Management for the Nez Perce Tribe, said.

Lee Whiteplume (Nez Perce) stands on a platform on the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Snake, where he uses a hoop net to catch salmon.

 

The Nez Perce, Yakama Nation, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have long seen the Snake as a living being, both in its ecological functions and through the relational act of fishing. The dams upset tribal relationships to the river and violate treaty rights by causing the loss of salmon and land and restricting tribal lifeways. So the tribes have vocally supported dam removal — and Simpson’s proposal.

The lower Snake River dams, and the reservations and ceded lands of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission tribes.

The surgical removal of the four dams would rapidly and dramatically change the river. Federal agency reports estimate that breaching would take about two years, but up to seven years could pass before the river flushes out the built-up sediment behind the dams and finds a balance between sediment flow and water. Water levels would drop, with dams no longer keeping them artificially high. Connective streams would re-emerge. Salmon numbers may improve, and, eventually, the three hatchery operations run by the Nez Perce might be pared down. 

Dam removal doesn’t guarantee a full recovery, though, given the turbulent ocean conditions and degraded freshwater quality. Habitat elsewhere is also involved — other bodies in a larger community are experiencing their own pains. Still, last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed that breaching is necessary for salmon recovery, the first time a federal agency has come to such a conclusion and an important sign of support.

The warm, slack water behind Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River creates a stagnant environment that can be lethal to salmon. In 2015, nearly all of the river’s sockeye run perished due to heat, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

IN ARID SOUTHEASTERN WASHINGTON, the Snake supports vast fields and groves of wine grapes, apples, onions, cherries and wheat. Irrigators use a system of wells and pumps that draw from the guts of the Snake to water the crops that embank it. Around 50,000 acres of farmland could be affected by the dams’ removal. Last summer, a joint congressional-state report laid out what needs to happen before the dams can be breached: The barges that transport millions of tons of wheat so cheaply, the jewel-like fruits that rely on the river to flourish in a desert, the carbon-free hydroelectric turbines — all those benefits built upon the Snake — would need to change, or alternatives would have to be found. Wheat producers would require more highway or rail transportation, and utilities would have to build new carbon-free energy elsewhere.

Salmon numbers may improve, and, eventually, the three hatchery operations run by the Nez Perce might be pared down.
A wild steelhead swims upstream inside a fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam.

 

These populations are at high risk of extinction. A dam employee counts salmon passing through the fish ladder.

Nico Higheagle (Nez Perce), who works at the Kooskia National Fish Hatchery, shows some of the injuries a spring chinook sustained while returning from the ocean.

As the river’s levels fall, irrigators would need to deepen wells and alter pumps to reach the lowered water table. Katie Nelson, who uses Snake River water for Kamiak Vineyards, her family’s farm, told High Country News that their 112-foot-deep wells would need to go even deeper. Nelson’s farm could keep producing, “as long as the pressure was there and the supply reliable,” she said. “And those are two things we just don’t know.” Nelson’s father, who founded the farm in the mid-1980s, has long opposed dam removal. Katie Nelson says the farm would likely fail if the dams are removed. “It’s probably not a gamble we would want to take.” (Not all irrigated lands along the Snake are small-scale family farms like Nelson’s. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest landowner that uses irrigation water from Ice Harbor Dam. It has over 15,000 acres, alongside other out-of-state owners). 

Ten years ago, this housing development in Kennewick, Washington, was covered by wheat fields. Before that, it was arid desert. In the distance, green alfalfa fields are irrigated with water from the Snake River. As the region’s population increases, its demand for water and energy is exploding.

 

Around 50,000 acres of farmland could be affected by the dams’ removal.

Irrigators know that the Columbia River Basin, the home of the Snake, is changing. The Pacific Northwest’s unprecedented “heat dome” in summer 2021 blistered and desiccated crops, causing a 10% loss in yields. Last year, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association proposed a compromise: drawing down two of the reservoirs to help salmon recovery while avoiding total removal. But wheat growers upriver oppose the idea, since it would cut off the barge transportation they rely on. 

Removing the dams could cost up to $2 billion for breaching, revegetation and protection of previously inundated tribal sites and artifacts. Simpson’s $34 billion proposal includes plans for carbon-free energy, irrigation system adaptation and broader habitat restoration. It’s a steep price, but there is also a cost to maintaining things as they are. Keeping the dams in place for another half century will cost between $4 billion and $8 billion in dam maintenance and hatchery operations, subsidized by the federal government and taxpayers. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the electricity from the dams, has spent almost $25 billion over 40 years to restore endangered salmon. Aside from coho, however, the fish are closer to extinction than ever. 

Mark Drobish, hatchery manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Dworshak Hatchery, tosses a live steelhead into the back of a truck filled with water. In the mid-20th century, the federal government ignored biologists’ warnings that wild salmon would be decimated by dam construction.

In August 2021, the Nez Perce fisheries department collected salmon below Lower Granite Dam and transported them to their cooler natal river, the Clearwater, to protect them from the dangerous dam passage and the hot reservoir. Here, workers trap and sort out salmon that are ready to spawn.

Juvenile chinook salmon swim in an acclimation tank at the Dworshak Hatchery. Once they’re large enough, they’ll be released into the Clearwater River. In summer 2022, the federal government handed over management of Dworshak to the Nez Perce Tribe. Hatcheries were originally created to help support wild salmon harvests, but now the survival of chinook, steelhead, coho and sockeye largely depends on them. Today, about 80% of the salmon in the Columbia River come from hatcheries.

Fertilized salmon eggs spend several months in trays at the facility before hatching (right). A Nez Perce fisheries employee holds up a bag of salmon sperm and eggs at the tribal hatchery (left).

 

THE DEBATE OVER DAM REMOVAL has created its own kind of river ecosystem: Scientists and task forces study the river’s intricacies, tribal nations and conservation groups dispute the dams in court, politicians argue over their costs and trade-offs. But underneath all that, below the wells and dams and other infrastructure, lies the river, whose health is failing. All bodies have their limits, and the Snake may soon reach its own.

Some years ago, Wheeler’s father died from heart disease. Wheeler, a Nez Perce tribal leader who has witnessed the decline of the Snake River’s ecosystem, sees a likeness between what happened to his father’s body and what’s happening to the river. “The sediment that collects at the bottom and what it does to the flowing of your blood through your veins or the water through the system — that’s the way that I view the dams, as far as harming something that’s living.”  —Anna V. Smith, associate editor 

Mike Tuell, deputy director of production for the Nez Perce tribal hatcheries, holds up a fish he caught in the Rapid River, within the Snake River watershed.

Brandon Bisbee fishes with a dip net on Rapid River. The government has spent over $17 billion on hatcheries for the Snake and Columbia rivers, yet salmon continue to decline. Biologists, conservationists, federal fisheries managers and tribal leaders believe more is needed to save the fish, including dam removal.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the owner of the dams. They are owned by the federal government. We also misidentified a wild steelhead in one of the photos.

Hayley Austin is a photographer based in Hamburg, Germany.
She was born in Texas and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master in Photography from FH Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences.

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