Chinook count Lower Granite damPP.jpg

In 2019, about 16,100 Chinook salmon made it across Lower Granite Dam — the uppermost of the four Lower Snake River dams. Their numbers were down almost 10% from the previous year, and 60% from the five-year average of 40,434. While 16,000 Chinook may seem like a lot, these fish disperse through the Clearwater, Salmon, Grande Ronde, Wallowa, Minam and other streams, with hundreds of miles remaining before they spawn.

The four dams on the Lower Snake River are distant and may seem irrelevant to Wallowa County. So why is the Chieftain running a bunch of stories about them?

Because every single salmon and every single steelhead in the Imnaha, the Wallowa, the Lostine, Hurricane Creek, the Minam, the Grande Ronde and other Wallowa County streams must navigate those dams. And the populations of these fish are plummeting. The reasons are complex, and include climate-driven changes in ocean conditions, lower and warmer stream flows, a plethora of predators and the protracted misery of navigating the gauntlet of dams and their slack water from the Snake River to the ocean and back. The last four dams are often where upstream mortality takes its greatest toll on these marathon-runner fish.

How to save these fish, our fish, is a critical question that must be addressed by everyone. As David Konz, president of the Columbia River Towboat Association said, “Salmon recovery is the most important thing. We need to start with that. If your concerns just start with the (Lower) Snake River dams, we’ll just spin our wheels and stay where we are.”

There is nothing easy or simple about resolving the issues surrounding the four Lower Snake River Dams. For fish, the best and most obvious fix is breaching the dams and returning the lower Snake to a free-flowing river. But this would create havoc for the infrastructure that wheat growers and agriculture have come to depend on, including transportation of supplies upstream, commodities downstream, and access to irrigation that ensures productivity.

Economic study after economic study funded by agricultural or transportation interests underline the obvious: breaching dams will challenge and change local economies. The most recent, funded by the Pacific Waterways Association, reanalyzed existing data. It predictably found that removal of dams and river-based transportation would result in an additional 23.8 million miles of truck travel annually, a cost of $5.9 million for increased injuries and fatalities due to increased truck and train mileage, and increased carbon and other emissions which will cost more than $7.1 million per year. All told, this most recent forecast predicts an annual cost of $155 million per year to the nation. There would also be an estimated loss of $76 million per year to farmers, or as much as $2.3 billion over the next 30 years.

The sole exception to the notion that removing dams would irreparably harm Washington’s economy is a June, 2019 study by EcoNorthwest, funded by Vulcan Inc. — a subsidiary of Paul Allen’s Microsoft. The study determined that “Dam removal would result in a reduction in spending in some sectors (e.g. grain farming and dam operations and maintenance), however the physical costs of removing the dams also produce a set of positive economic impacts, albeit potentially for a different population. Removing the Lower Snake River Dams will result in a net increase of $505 million in output, $492 million in value added, $408 million in labor income, and 317 annual jobs.” The report finds that “the benefits accruing to the public from a restored natural river system and a reduced extinction risk of wild salmon outweigh the net costs of removing the dams by over $8.6 billion.” This estimate is based partly upon the general public’s cultural value for salmon and their willingness to shoulder higher costs for power and commodities in order to save fish.

On Jan. 10, the Washington governor’s office sponsored a meeting and panel of stakeholders in Clarkston. The question repeatedly asked by panelists was “which set of figures do we believe?”

Over the 40 years since the dams were built, the answer has lain with how you earned your living. Farmers can prove that dam removal might be catastrophic. Supporters of salmon and prosperous river ecosystems can prove that dam removal is the better option for all.

With a court-mandated federal environmental impact statement looming that will address the environmental impacts of each of the 14 major dams on the Columbia River system, its time to step out from our hardened positions and find a real solution. The loss of salmon in the Snake River, the Clearwater, the Salmon River and ultimately in Wallowa County is unacceptable. This year, as outfitter Dustin Aherin pointed out, there were only 161 Chinook redds in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In 1962, before the locks on the Lower Snake River dams closed, there were at least 23,000. This year our steelhead returns are near an all-time low, and wild fall Chinook nearly non-existent in the Wallowa River and tributaries. The dams are not the only factor, but they are a factor.

It’s time to find a real solution that saves these fish and honors America’s treaties with the Nez Perce and other tribes. This would not be the first time that agriculture and tribes successfully collaborated on a major project to restore salmon and their habitat. For example, in the late 1980s the Umatilla Basin Project restored stream flow to a river which was dried up by summer irrigation withdrawals. It was not cheap. In 1984 dollars it cost $64 million for planning and construction, and much more in landowner and community costs. Some farmers and ranchers had to change their practices, and for a time may have lost money. But today, the project is a success.

This was a big, bold project. At the time, like the larger problem of the Snake River Dams, it was opposed and criticized. Today the project works successfully for farmers and tribal members alike, enhancing recreation, providing irrigation, increasing prosperity for farms and restoring fish.

We need big, bold thinking again, not withdrawal into our comfort zones on either side, and fear of change. Wallowa County’s salmon can’t wait. And, as Donald Trump has noted, “Nothing is easy. But who wants nothing?”

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