Since the heady days of dam-building in the 1960s and ’70s, the Snake River has seen a more than 90 percent decline in fish populations, with every native species either being wiped out or left teetering on the brink of extinction. But now, scientific and political will is mounting in favor of removing four controversial dams and restoring one of this country’s richest environmental, economic and cultural legacies.
On March 2, representatives from the Clinton administration will hold public hearings in Missoula about the removal of four Snake River dams in eastern Washington. Since all are operated by the federal government, any recovery plan for endangered salmon must be written by the governors of Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.
“The issue of historic Snake River salmon and steelhead is probably the most politically charged and undoubtedly the most expensive endangered species effort ever on the planet,” says Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers Unlimited, one of more than 600 scientific and environmental organizations endorsing dam removal.
As Bosse explains, Snake River salmon are a “keystone” species for the entire Columbia River basin, providing food and nutrients to literally dozens of animal and plant species. Nevertheless, all four dams cause an estimated 40 percent fish mortality rate each year, despite years of expensive and often controversial efforts to permit fish passage.
Virtually all of the science—and much of the economics—supports dam removal. Unlike dams in other regions, these were not built for flood control and produce less than five percent of the total electricity used in the Northwest.
The dams’ primary benefit is to make the river navigable for wheat, wood and pulp products moving from the Port of Lewiston to the tri-cities region in Washington, which can be shipped—albeit, more expensively—using other means.
Within 20 years, Bosse says, dam removal could create an estimated 20,000 new jobs, a net loss of between 500 and 1,000 jobs. Moreover, the recreational benefits of opening up an additional 140 miles of free-flowing river would put an estimated $500 million a year into local economies. While the cost of dam removal is about $1 billion over nine years, the cost of keeping the dams in place and continuing their upkeep will run between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion.
“Salmon have tremendous economic and cultural value,” says Bosse. “If you can’t save endangered salmon, with all their biological, historical and economic significance to this country, what chance do we have of saving anything else? This is really a line in the sand for a lot of conservation groups.”