This week, federal agencies finalized a management plan for federal dams in the Columbia River Basin through a Record of Decision (ROD). The plan applies to 14 dams and reservoirs that comprise the Columbia River Hydropower System, including four dams in the lower Snake River. Research shows that the lower Snake River dams, in particular, negatively impact the recovery of endangered Pacific salmon and southern resident orcas, yet federal agencies have repeatedly refused to remove these dams.
Robb Krehbiel, representative for Northwest Programs at Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“With the birth of two new southern resident orca calves, it is imperative that we do everything possible to save these endangered orcas from starvation. Science has proven that the four federal dams on the lower Snake River are harmful to both salmon and orca recovery, and we are disappointed in the federal government’s refusal to take meaningful action and remove these dams.
“We need governors and members of Congress to bring stakeholders together and determine a plan that saves salmon and orcas; honors our treaty obligations to tribes; and supports struggling fishing communities.”
Dam management in the Columbia River Basin
• The Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) in July 2020 for the management of 14 dams and reservoirs that comprise the Columbia River Hydropower System. The agencies’ chosen alternative is to slightly increase the amount of water spilled over dams during the juvenile salmon migration to the ocean in the spring. While this action is anticipated to marginally increase salmon runs, the advantages for salmon would be modest compared to the dam breaching alternative.
• In 2016, the federal agencies were ordered by a federal court to produce an environmental impact statement updating the management plan.
• The chosen management method, which did not include dam breaching, was announced in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), released earlier this year, by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation, who are responsible for managing the federal dams, including the four dams in the lower Snake River.
• This requirement is the result of decades-long litigation regarding the effect these federal dams have on salmon. Native American tribes, environmental groups, fishing organizations, and others have repeatedly challenged the lack of an adequate salmon recovery program.
Endangered salmon and orcas
• One of the leading causes of the decrease in chinook salmon is the existence of hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin, which includes four dams on the lower Snake River. These dams directly affect salmon runs by providing physical barriers to both adult salmon returning to the river to spawn and juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.
• Independent science has shown that these dams also threaten the survival of adult salmon by raising the water temperature to lethal levels, a threat exacerbated by the effects of climate change in the region. Government and independent models have shown that removing the four lower Snake River dams can cool the Snake and Columbia Rivers to safe levels for salmon.
• With the successful birth of two new calves this summer, the current southern resident orcas number 74 in the wild. The population is classified as critically endangered and is facing extinction because their primary food source, chinook salmon, have declined across the Northwest.
• While these once-epic salmon runs are a shadow of what they once were, salmon scientists have suggested that removing the four dams on the lower Snake River could recover these threatened salmon runs, resulting in approximately 1 million adult chinook salmon returning to the mouth of the Columbia River every year.
• This would provide orcas with a substantial and critical source of food in their winter habitat range (the west coast of the U.S.). Leading orca scientists have said that orca recovery may be impossible if these dams are not removed.