Snake River Salmon

The Battle for the Dams

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have long been vocal opponents of dam removal. They argue that significant changes to existing infrastructure could translate into higher costs for public utility customers.

For over two decades, advocates and opponents have found themselves entangled in endless lawsuits. In the most recent ruling in 2016, a federal district court judge rejected the government’s salmon protection plan, also known as the “biological opinion,” which is required under the Endangered Species Act. This rejection marked the fifth consecutive time the plan to keep the dams intact was dismissed. The ruling emphasized the urgent need for a thorough environmental analysis of the dams’ impact on salmon populations, stating that “the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul.”

As a response to this decision, several lawmakers in Congress introduced what conservationists refer to as “the salmon extinction act.” Crafted to ensure the preservation of the dams until 2022, the bill, known as H.R. 3144, passed the House in April. Its sponsors justified their support by highlighting the dams’ significant economic contributions.

However, dam removal advocates argue that the legislators’ energy argument fails to consider the bigger picture. A 2018 report by the NW Energy Coalition revealed that other renewable energy sources like solar and wind power could effectively replace the hydroelectric power generated by the Lower Snake River dams without compromising reliability or causing major environmental costs or rate hikes. Sean O’Leary, the group’s communications director, pointed out, “We now have evidence showing that we don’t have to choose between reliable, clean, affordable energy and the recovery of fish. It fundamentally changes the nature of the debate.”

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A Glimmer of Hope for Fishing

Some organizations fighting for the survival of the Columbia-Snake River Basin’s salmon propose a more targeted approach to dam removal. They urge the BPA to remove only a select few. One such group is the Upper Columbia United Tribes, a coalition of five local tribes: the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians. They support the removal of the Lower Snake River dams but argue that the Chief Joseph Dam and Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River’s main stem are likely to remain.

John Sirois, the committee coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes, explains, “These dams generate a significant amount of power in this region, and their removal would face fierce opposition. We hope to achieve our goal of restoring salmon runs without engaging in such a conflict.”

According to Sirois and other community members, installing fish passages on the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams could offer at least a temporary solution. However, the tribes have conducted research expected to be released this fall, which indicates the existence of other viable recovery tools. One such tool is the “salmon cannon,” which uses negative air pressure in rubber tubes to propel fish 1,000 feet over a 350-foot incline, enabling adult salmon to reach their breeding grounds. Another option is a floating surface collector, an apparatus that transports juvenile salmon downstream for migration. Surprisingly, BPA resists even these less intrusive and less expensive options, as the utility prefers not to alter river flow to accommodate fish passages.

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Sirois remains optimistic, stating, “Eventually, those dams will come down. For now, we need to find ways to help fish navigate their way.”

Efforts to improve the rivers’ flow have shown some success. In 2017, a U.S. District Court judge in Portland, Oregon, ruled that more water must spill over the dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers between April and mid-June to assist juvenile salmon in their downstream journey. Increasing spillage, by allowing more water to flow over the dams instead of channeling it all through turbines to generate electricity, promotes successful migration for more young salmon. Stefani, an expert on the subject, describes this as a “fast, short-term solution” that aids salmon on their path to recovery.

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