Addressing the myths about Snake River salmon and dams

Feb 10, 2022

Recently, a group of high school students asked the Sammamish City Council to adopt a resolution calling for the destruction of the Snake River Dams. Here is the letter I sent to the councilmembers and the students outlining some of the problems with the information in a PowerPoint provided to the students by anti-dam activists.

Since this addresses many of the current arguments being made by those who want to destroy the dams, I thought I would share my letter.

I was very gratified to have a nice discussion with one of the students who had helped write the resolution and he was interested finding ways to help salmon across the region. That would be positive. Salmon need help and we need to focus on those areas where we can make the most positive impact in the near term.

Here is the text of the letter.

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We should start by making clear the state of salmon in the Snake and across the state.

The most dramatic chart in the presentation is the comparison of Smolt-to-adult return ratios, which claims that the percentage of smolt returning to the Snake River as adults is extremely low. For comparison, the chart offers three rivers – the Deschutes, the John Day, and the Yakima. There are many rivers and streams in the Northwest and in the Columbia Basin. Why are these three rivers chosen? Because they are the only ones that fit the narrative that the Snake River SARs are lower than typical.

A peer-reviewed study released in 2020 examined SARs across the Northwest in dozens of rivers and found, “the SARs of Snake River populations, often singled out as exemplars of poor survival, are unexceptional and in fact higher than estimates reported from many other regions of the west coast lacking dams.” I’ve worked in environmental policy for more than two decades and this particular manipulation of the data is particularly annoying and egregious. The activists who have been making this argument about SARs for the past three years, and who gave the slide to the students, know they are cherry-picking in a particularly dishonest way.

Like many parts of the Northwest, salmon populations on the Snake are lower than we’d like, but unlike other areas, they are moving in the right direction.

The state’s own State of the Salmon report identifies the Snake River Fall Chinook run as near recovery, a status shared by only one other salmon run in the state. Snake River steelhead are one of only two runs at the next level of “making progress.” Only the Spring/Summer Chinook run is at risk. And while the population trends for that run are slower than I’d like, they are moving in the right direction.

To make the numbers look worse than they are, advocates of dam destruction focus narrowly on only the Spring/Summer run, and only on wild fish, not including hatchery fish. This contradicts some of their other arguments.

For example, some groups arguing for destruction of the dams cite the need to increase populations for sport fishing. However, it is illegal to catch wild fish and only hatchery fish count when determining the fishing season. Additionally, orca don’t distinguish between hatchery and wild fish. If we care about orca, we should count all fish.

Finally, many dam opponents cite the removal of the Elwha dams as evidence that removing dams can increase salmon populations. They neglect to mention that 96 percent of Elwha River salmon are hatchery fish – a far higher percentage than in the Snake River.

By way of comparison, Puget Sound salmon have made no progress in the last two decades. Puget Sound Chinook salmon were listed as threatened in 1999 and populations are the same or lower today. The science clearly points to the Puget Sound as the place most in need of funding and attention.

Unfortunately, while Puget Sound and the Washington coast receive about $100 million a year in salmon recovery funding, the proposal to destroy the Snake River dams is $33.5 billion – 335 years’ worth of funding at current levels for one stretch of river where salmon populations are already moving in the right direction.

This is why there is strong bipartisan opposition to destroying the dams. Governor Inslee’s former salmon advisor Steve Martin has publicly opposed destroying the dams, among many others.

It is important also to note that several of the claims in the PowerPoint provided to the students are simply false. These slides are very familiar to me and have been used by dam opponents for years.

For example, the opening slide says, “salmon can’t migrate back and forth due to dams.” This is simply incorrect. At the Lower Granite Dam, the farthest upstream, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates 98% of smolt successfully pass the dam. The percentage is similar at the other dams, at about 96%.

The first slide also claims that Snake River populations are “a major cause for the Southern Resident Orca decline.” This is also inaccurate. NOAA Fisheries, which oversees the listing of the Southern Resident Orca as “threatened,” ranks Snake River salmon far down the list of their food sources. Salmon from the Puget Sound, the Frasier River, the Washington coast, the lower Columbia, and elsewhere are all more critical for the resident orca.

In their brief on “Southern Resident Killer Whales and Snake River Dams,” NOAA Fisheries staff note that destroying the Snake River dams would not meaningfully help the orca. They wrote, “the relative size of the Snake River salmon stocks compared to others on the West Coast means that increases in their numbers, whether from breaching dams or otherwise, would result in only a marginal change in the total salmon available to the killer whale.”

Indeed, they note that Columbia and Snake River Chinook are doing better than other important food sources. They wrote that the recent “increase in Chinook returns to the Columbia and Snake rivers helps support the Southern Residents to the extent it improves overall salmon abundance. Other Chinook salmon stocks in the killer whales’ range, such as in Puget Sound and the Sacramento River, remain depressed.”

Spending $33.5 billion to do virtually nothing for the Southern Resident Killer Whales when there are significant problems facing the orcas’ primary food sources is counterproductive.

The presentation also says that the dams are “inefficient energy producers,” and replacing them with other clean energy sources would not significantly increase household costs. This is not accurate and even groups that support destroying the dams admit this.

Washington state has the lowest electricity rates in the country, largely due to our extremely efficient and low-cost hydroelectric power. Additionally, the Snake River dams play an important role in keeping our grid stable. Unlike other CO2-free sources of energy like wind, solar, and nuclear, Snake River dams can adjust power production to meet fluctuating demand during the day. Without them, it would be more difficult to meet changing demands during the day, and Washington state would have to rely on natural gas generation. This is why the NW Energy Coalition, which supports destruction of the dams, admits that removing the dams would increase Washington state’s CO2 emissions.

The four lower Snake River dams produce more energy than all the wind turbines and solar panels in Washington state combined. Imagine if someone suggested removing every wind turbine and solar panel in the state. That is what is being proposed.

This is probably too long, but I took the opportunity to address the issues comprehensively since they are the ones being made by activists everywhere.

If you have any questions or want the sources I have cited, please feel free to reach out to me. Salmon recovery is an issue that matters to everyone and if we are to increase their population, for their own sake, for harvest, for orca, and to meet our tribal treaty obligations, we need to follow the science and put our efforts where they make the most difference. Destroying the Snake River dams simply isn’t consistent with that goal.