Boots on the ground for a low, free-flowing snake river

Trout Week is a great time to get excited about all things trout. As you learn about some new waters, a new fly fishing technique, or that new fly pattern is great—and may even help you catch some fish—Trout Unlimited works across the country to preserve the fishery of trout and to restore natural habitats, but already you all probably know this. Today, one of TU’s main goals is to remove the four lower Snake River dams to restore the river to its native and wild salmon and steelhead.

Why should the bottom four dams come out?

Salmon and steelhead all along the Pacific coast are headed for extinction. A devastating combination of factors contribute to this inevitable but inevitable fate: human development, river flooding, climate change, overharvesting and more. However, dams throughout the West Coast and especially in the Pacific Northwest have caused the most damage. And in the Snake River Basin, the four Lower Snake River Dams (LSRD), which should never have been built in the first place, choke wild salmon and steelhead populations from intact, quality habitat and from peoples more dependent.

  • LSRDs essentially create miles of poor water, destroying juvenile salmon and steelhead spawned from a declining adult population. No downstream current prevents the efficient migration crawls once depended on and leaves them vulnerable to predation and the effects of poor water quality.
  • In recent years, the number of salmon and steelhead that pass through Lower Granite Dam to the ocean and return as adults (SAR) is just under two percent. However, a SAR of four percent or better is required for healthy, harvestable populations of these once prolific salmon and steelhead species. These fish are fading to extinction unless the status quo changes.
  • Biologists from Oregon and Idaho, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and various tribes estimate that removing LSRDs will increase recapture ratios among adults by four times. Also, removing the dams would return 140 miles of habitat to a naturally functioning river and significantly reduce the time it takes smolts to reach the ocean.
  • Independent and government reports now say the same thing: LSRDs threaten the survival of wild Snake River salmon and steelhead, and their removal represents the best chance to recover these iconic species.
  • Associated tribes of Northwest Indians are united after the removal of LSRDs.
  • While dams provide significant benefits to Northwest communities, all of these functions CAN be replaced and improved.

“It’s not a conversation anymore whether but when the dams come out,” said Eric Crawford of Trout Unlimited. “Together, we are that much closer to seeing the federal government honor its fiduciary obligation to tribes throughout the Northwest and the recovery of abundant wild and steelhead salmon. As we move into a planning phase, it is important that people stay engaged, continue to hold Congress accountable, ensuring that electricity remains affordable and reliable, while developing agricultural transportation infrastructure that is efficient and cost-effective for farm families.

The Snake River dams are coming out

In just the past few months, the dialogue around Snake River restoration has shifted from cautious optimism to “removal of LSRDs is inevitable.” What prompted that change you may ask. Well, it’s probably a bunch of factors, but recently released reports are making the same findings; Tribal communities are developing projects to offset the effects of Dams; Federal funds are flowing in to start the transition; and, all signs point to the extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead unless survival is increased.

A report by NOAA Fisheries this September found that, “breaching the lower Snake River dams—in conjunction with other fish protection measures—would have the highest increase in survival of all alternatives considered.”

Ice Harbor Dam at Dusk, Ben Herndon.

And now, political leaders in the Northwest are increasingly serious about removing LSRDs and saving salmon and steelhead. It started with Idaho Representative Mike Simpson’s 2021 Energy and Salmon Concept. And then the Washington Democrats, Governor Inslee and Senator Murray got involved. They released the Benefits Replacement Report earlier this summer that ultimately reviewed Simpson’s plan and additional options related to salmon and steelhead recovery and replacing the benefits of the Dams. Read an excerpt from the Report below.

“To make breaching the Lower Snake River Dams a realistic and viable option, we need to focus on short- and medium-term actions to invest in the region’s transportation network and power grid. Importantly, we must also aggressively pursue projects and initiatives to restore habitat and support salmon recovery throughout the Columbia River Basin and Puget Sound. The combination of the Jobs and Infrastructure Investment Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as other federal investments, provides an excellent opportunity to meet our national decarbonization goals, accelerate the deployment of existing and new energy sources and renewable and to protect the future of important species.”

The report outlines the actions needed to make breaching the LSRD a viable option. However, he also admits that substantial work will be needed to get to that point. But one thing is certain. The wheels – and the dollars – are in motion to realize a more connected and productive meandering river for salmon, tribal communities, outdoor recreationists and local businesses. “[The dams] have already exceeded their planned service life and will become more obsolete in the coming years,” said Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood. “The only question is, what will replace them and will it be in time to save salmon for salmon.”

A reflection from time in the Snake River basin

Earlier this fall, I joined a group of TU leaders, industry partners, and intrepid steelhead anglers on the Clearwater River, a major tributary of the Snake, to share perspectives and learn more about field work . While the group’s spec anglers never got our hands on a steelhead or one of the legendary B runs that Clearwater is known for, Eric Crawford prefers to actually catch fish and fixate on a nice wild man and a fish wild on the first day. Eric organized the event and is a major force in the larger Snake River recovery campaign.

The whole experience was incredible, but two events stood out – and will likely remain vivid memories for years to come: standing below Lower Granite Dam and a discussion with Nez Perce Vice Chief Shannon Wheeler.

I had seen pictures of Lower Granite Dam many, many times, but I was completely unprepared for the feeling of seeing it in person and understanding its impact.

Of the LSRDs, the Lower Granite is furthest up the Snake River. Approaching the dam and then standing below it, I was somewhat stunned to see something that looked nothing like a wild and famous river. I mean the Snake is supposed to be, and once was, a big winding river that carved a deep canyon through Idaho. However, I saw two lakes on either side of this massive concrete structure that stretched across the deep canyon.

It was a powerful experience. Immediately, standing next to this dam, you realize its size and the power needed to stop a river as powerful as the Serpent. Second, I quickly sensed that something was wrong; it just didn’t feel natural. Water must move; there should be lush vegetation along the river banks. Must have salmon and steelhead. I don’t have to look at sprinklers needed to keep the birds out of the migratory smolt exit.

It was outrage, which made all the work and effort of those behind the Snake River Campaign worthwhile. Standing beneath that concrete structure and behind all that potential of the flowing river and the salmon, that feeling and motivation that had driven them and still is was ingrained in me. But then you think how close we are to losing these fish and the lifestyles associated with them.

The Nez Perce tribe has lived throughout the Columbia River basin for centuries, relying on the Columbia and Snake rivers for their food, travel, and culture. I knew that, and to some extent we all probably have some concept of the connection that Native Americans have to their lands and waters. However, sitting on a porch overlooking the Clearwater River eating a meal of steelhead (catch) and elk belt with Vice President Wheeler left me with a whole new perspective.

Gary Woodcock paddling past Lower Granite Dam on the Lower Snake River in the Salish Flathead dugout canoe after passing through the locks, Ben Herndon.

It is not only a pursuit of recreation and pleasure for the Nez Perce people. They innately rely on these fish to support their culture and feed their communities. The Deputy Speaker spoke about it passionately, but seriously. He wants to see the salmon come back, and his people need the salmon to come back. Wheeler also understands the process, which is why the Nez Perce Tribe is greenlighting projects to offset some of the benefits the Dams provide.

We were well fed by a snake river comb steelhead!

During our meal, Vice President Wheeler explained the history of the region, how he has seen salmon and steelhead decline, and why we need to recover them. He also reminded us all that the United States made a promise to his people and other tribes that their rights to harvest salmon and other resources would be preserved. However, the problem with this is that there must be salmon in the water to maintain those treaty obligations.

There should be abundant populations of salmon and steelhead in the water for all of us to enjoy and benefit from. That’s something Wheeler likes to sing about. “Salmon is the golden thread that connects us all. When that part of our culture is in trouble, we’re all in trouble. When salmon don’t thrive, we suffer as a people.”

Ultimately, an act of Congress is needed to accomplish all of this, so Trout Unlimited developed an Action Page to urge Congress to remove LSRDs and recover Snake River salmon and steelhead. I have to say, I’ve been to some wild and remote places before, but there was something about hearing all the stories about how amazing and full of life the entire Snake River Basin was – but then you think how close we are, how place, to lose it. It doesn’t matter where you live, whether you fish for salmon and steelhead, Republican or Democrat, we need to recover Snake River salmon and steelhead, and that starts with removing the four Lower Snake River dams. Go to the Action Page and urge your members of Congress to restore a low, free-flowing Snake River.

Boots on the ground: Jessica Strickland

TU Costa 5 Rivers – Community Building for College Anglers

Save the Snake River

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