Commentary: Broaden Scope of Snake River Salmon Review


Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee announced in October they’ll listen to diverse viewpoints with open minds to recover salmon and potentially breach the four Lower Snake River dams.

Their focus on restoring Snake River salmon and steelhead runs is too limited. It needs to be expanded to cover the entire Snake River drainage.

Currently, the four lower dams — all in Washington — are targeted to determine if they should be torn down to improve ocean-going fish runs while ignoring other upstream impoundments.

From its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park, the Snake River flows nearly 1,100 miles to join the Columbia River near Pasco. It is the Columbia’s largest tributary and America’s ninth largest river. Its water falls nearly 9,400 feet in elevation from headwaters to mouth.

In all, there are 22 hydropower dams on the Snake River’s main stem — 15 in Idaho, three on the Idaho/Oregon border and four in Washington. The Snake produces more than 1,100 megawatts of electricity — enough for the city of Seattle — and the water withdrawals irrigate 3.8 million acres.

Before the dam construction, the Snake produced huge volumes of salmon and steelhead. Its spawning grounds extended inland to Shoshone Falls, 600 miles upstream from the Columbia.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council estimated prior to 1850, the Snake River Basin produced 1.4 million Chinook, 200,000 coho and 150,000 sockeye each year. Steelhead were estimated at 340,000.

“The decline of the Columbia River salmon runs, including the Snake River runs, was started by over harvest in the lower Columbia from the 1860s to the early 1900s and in the lower Columbia and Pacific Ocean from the early 1900s to the 1970s,” John McKern, a fish and wildlife biologist, wrote in 2015. Overharvest and loss of spawning habitat due to upstream dams and human activities occurred before the lower Snake River dams were built.

Things changed when the Idaho Power Company completed the first of its three dams in the Hells Canyon. In 1959, Brownlee Dam — the first dam upstream from Lower Granite — blocked salmon passage in Hells Canyon. Unlike the four lower Snake River dams none had fish ladders.

Over the years, several attempts failed to reintroduce fish runs above the Hells Canyon impoundments. However, as part of an expanded study, new fish passages approaches are needed.

Restoring Snake River runs is not just a lower Snake River dams’ problem. Breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, where millions has already been spent to improve fish passages, is no simple, magical solution. Nor is demolishing Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams. All causes from predators, fish harvest levels to water temperatures need to be explored.

While breaching proponents tend to diminish the importance of the four Snake River dams’ power generation, they can provide enough electricity for 1.87 million homes when generating at full capacity. On average, they contribute 5% of the Northwest’s electricity supply — power absent of CO2.

Snake River dams are more critical for Idaho Power’s 500,000 customers. The Hells Canyon dams are generating 70% of the company’s hydroelectricity which is the largest energy source. Idaho’s utility customers still receive a third of their electricity from coal and natural gas plants.

An outspoken activist of ripping out the lower dams located in our state is southern Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. Even though a 2020 federal study recommended against breaching the dams, Simpson wants to spend $33.5 billion in federal funds to breach all four.

All this points to the importance of a broader, more inclusive study. Just focusing on part of the problem will not end with a long-term resolution benefiting salmon or people.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at