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Recovering Columbia/Snake River Salmon

Sockeye salmon make their way back up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn.

Sockeye salmon make their way back up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Photo

What's at Stake

For decades, Earthjustice has been fighting to keep endangered salmon in the Columbia River and its main tributary, the Snake River, from going extinct. The major threat is a system of dams that hinders salmon migration. We’re litigating for better operation of the dams and advocating for the ultimate removal of four outdated dams on the lower Snake River.

Case Overview

Earthjustice’s efforts to protect west coast salmon all began in 1988, when Earthjustice attorney Mike Sherwood received a phone call from the president of the American Fisheries Society—alarmed that only 2,000 of the typical 200,000 adult king salmon had returned to California’s Sacramento River to spawn. Filing on behalf of the American Fisheries Society, Sherwood tried to force the government to list the species under the Endangered Species Act, a case he lost in the lower courts—but later won. Those Sacramento chinook salmon were the first of 28 different runs of west coast salmon and steelhead eventually protected under the Endangered Species Act, including 13 runs in the Columbia River Basin.

Securing protection for these iconic fish was only the first step in an on-going Earthjustice campaign to protect and restore wild salmon to the major salmon rivers of the west coast. Decades later, Earthjustice is still battling to save salmon up and down the west coast—after multiple cases involving water releases, dam operations and river dredging. A key piece of this broader campaign is litigation in the Columbia River Basin to compel changes to the operation of the large, federal hydroelectric dams—four on the Columbia and four on the lower Snake—that transform these rivers into slackwater reservoirs, drastically alter natural river flows, and pose lethal obstacles to juvenile salmon migrating downstream to the ocean. Through a series of successful cases, we have secured court orders requiring the federal agencies that own and operate these dams to increase dramatically the amount of water they release over the dams to safely carry young salmon down the river and to sea. These efforts have helped produce some of the best fall Chinook salmon returns in decades and have helped to keep other runs from declining further, but the number of returning wild fish is still well below what is necessary for their survival, and nowhere near what’s necessary for their recovery.

Restoring salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers benefits the region’s economy and way of life in countless ways. Because the salmon-killing dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers rob Puget Sound’s endangered orca population of a vital food source, salmon recovery in the Columbia River basin benefits orca recovery in Puget Sound.

Related Features

Managing Attorney Todd True On the Fight To Save Salmon

Attorney Todd True discusses Earthjustice's work to protect and restore iconic salmon species, which have been pushed to the brink of extinction by overstretched water resources, dam construction, pollution and development.

Infographic: West Coast Salmon and River Systems

Earthjustice works to protect three endangered or threatened salmon species from California to Washington: King, Coho and Sockeye. Habitat disruption is the main problem, but climate change increasingly threatens.

Case Updates

April 26, 2012 | Blog Post

Judge: Salmon-killing Dams Should Go

In a recent video interview, federal judge James A. Redden said four dams on the lower Snake River should go. As he explained, it’s easier to take the dams out than it was to put them in and the change is needed for salmon to survive. This is the same judge who rejected three different weak federal plans which were supposed to protect endangered Snake and Columbia River salmon from the extensive harm caused by hydroelectric dams.