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What You Need To Know About Columbia/Snake River Dams & Salmon

The Columbia/Snake Rivers of the Pacific Northwest once hosted the world's greatest wild salmon runs, with up to 16 million fish each year. Today, it is the most heavily dammed river system on earth.

Are wild salmon in danger of extinction?

25 years ago, the American Fisheries Society estimated that, of the once-abundant runs of salmon in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California, at least 106 “stocks” (self-sustaining subpopulations) had gone extinct. Matters have not improved.
In fact, thirteen stocks of Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead have been added to the Endangered Species List since the 1990s. And all the remaining stocks that return to the Snake River—the largest and once the most productive tributary of the Columbia—are listed for protection.

What has caused their decline?

Many factors—but none play as large a role as the outdated federal dams.
Four such dams on the lower Snake River are driving all remaining Snake River salmon toward extinction. Since the dams were completed, these salmon populations have plummeted by more than 90%.
Bonneville Power
Ice Harbor, one of the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Why save wild salmon?

Because they're extraordinary. (An example: Salmon have one of nature's best senses of direction, smelling their way from the mouth of the Columbia at the Pacific Ocean, back to the stream of their birth, a journey of over 900 miles and some 5,000 feet of elevation for some salmon stocks.)
Because they're delicious. (And not just to some humans—orcas, bears and others rely on salmon as a critical food source.)
Because they're a crucial barometer of the health of ocean and inland water ecosystems that all of us depend on.
And, because: Healthy salmon populations and a free-flowing lower Snake River will deliver far greater economic benefits than the increasingly costly, aging lower Snake River dams.
Video courtesy of EP Films
After growing to peak physical condition in the open ocean, wild salmon will return to the mouth of the Columbia as mature adults, ready to begin the epic, arduous run back to spawning grounds in the stream of their birth. Watch the salmon in The Greatest Migration and in Idaho River United's One Of A Kind

Is there hope for wild salmon?

And—although additional steps will be needed—removing the four high-cost dams on the lower Snake River has been identified as the single largest step we can take for salmon recovery.
A key court ruling issued on May 4 presents a landmark opportunity to finally get right a plan to save wild salmon. Find out why.

How are dams destroying salmon?

By impeding the salmon's migratory route.
Juvenile salmon depend on free-flowing rivers to swim downstream to the ocean. Adults must be able to return upstream to spawn the next generation.
It's difficult to accomplish the roundtrip journey with dams in the way. The massive structures profoundly transform natural river systems. Find out what makes dams' reservoirs lethal to salmon.

Don’t the dams provide needed (clean) energy?

The importance of the lower Snake River dams for generating electricity has all but disappeared and diminishes further with each passing year as cleaner renewables and energy efficiency increasingly satisfy demand. The Northwest Power Planning Council concluded in 2010 that the region can meet its current and future energy needs without the power from these four dams.
An energy source that’s driving species to extinction is not “clean.” Find out some of hydropower's (dirty) energy secrets.
Major Dams in the Columbia River Basin
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. November 2003.
Approximate locations of major dams on the mainstem of the Columbia River and some of its major tributaries. Larger map

Why hasn’t the dams’ impact on salmon been addressed before now?

The National Marine Fisheries Service has ignored science and its legal responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, releasing numerous plans that have failed to avoid the jeopardy caused by the dams.
Many courts have harshly criticized this approach.
Read excerpts from court rulings

Harsh Words From The Court

More than a decade of court opinions have rejected dam management plans for failing to be lawful and science-based. On behalf of our clients, Earthjustice attorneys have repeatedly sued (and won) to ensure that the dams are operated to protect and restore endangered salmon and steelhead—and to meet the economic, cultural and environmental needs of the region. A selection of excerpts from the court rulings:

In 2016:

“Judge Redden, both formally in opinions and informally in letters to the parties, urged the relevant consulting and action agencies to consider breaching one or more of the four dams on the Lower Snake River. For more than 20 years, however, the federal agencies have ignored these admonishments and have continued to focus essentially on the same approach to saving the listed species—hydro-mitigation efforts that minimize the effect on hydropower generation operations with a predominant focus on habitat restoration. These efforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing. Many populations of the listed species continue to be in a perilous state.”

Read the court decision

In 2011:

“The history of the Federal Defendants’ lack of, or at best, marginal compliance with the procedural and substantive requirements of the ESA [Endangered Species Act] … has been laid out in prior Opinions and Orders in this case and is repeated here only where relevant.” The court went on to call the federal defendants’ plan “neither a reasonable, nor a prudent, course of action.”

National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 839 F.Supp.2d 1117 (D.Or. 2011)

In 2008:

“Under this approach, a listed species could be gradually destroyed, so long as each step on the path to destruction is sufficiently modest. This type of slow slide into oblivion is one of the very ills the ESA [Endangered Species Act] seeks to prevent.

National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 524 F.3d 917, 930 (9th Cir. 2008)

In 2005:

The government's inaction appears to some parties to be a strategy intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the status quo. Without real action from the Action Agencies, the result will be the loss of the wild salmon.”

National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, cv-01-640-RE (Oct. 7, 2005) (Opinion and Order of Remand) at 8

Who wants to save wild salmon?

Clean energy advocates, conservation organizations, fishing businesses, the State of Oregon, and the Nez Perce Tribe have all called for a plan that ensures wild salmon will survive.
And, Earthjustice. Will you join us?

What's the situation now?

On May 4, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon invalidated the federal government’s 2014 Columbia Basin salmon biological opinion. (The BiOp is the plan for protecting Columbia/Snake River salmon from extinction.)
The government's four previous plans were also ruled illegal and scientifically inadequate, following lawsuits brought by Earthjustice on behalf of our clients.

Why was the BiOp ruled illegal?

On several grounds:
Rejected the plan’s foundational “trending towards recovery” legal framework that allowed the agencies to conclude that the plan was working “with very little actual improvement in fish abundance”;
Rejected the plan’s heavy reliance on uncertain and speculative habitat mitigation measures to make up for the harm caused by the dams;
Found the government failed to adequately assess the “potentially catastrophic impact” of climate change on the basin’s salmon and steelhead populations;
Found that the agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider alternatives to the current narrow approaches that have “already costs billions of dollars, yet they are failing.”
The court found the BiOp violates the federal Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. (Read the legal document.)

Why is this court ruling a “Big Deal?”

The court has now confirmed more than a decade of court opinions rejecting dam management plans that do not protect our endangered wild salmon.
This decision leaves no room for doubt: Federal agencies must take strong, effective action to dramatically and substantially change the management of the Columbia and Snake River dams, as conservation groups, fishing businesses and clean energy advocates have long called for.

What happens next?

The court has ordered a new biological opinion and full NEPA analysis that complies with the law no later than March 1, 2018.
The May 2016 ruling opens a critical opportunity to fundamentally change dams and dam operations to protect the iconic salmon, while also providing clean and reliable energy. As a result of the ruling, on September 30, 2016, the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced hearings seeking public input on the removal of the four lower Snake River dams.

Is there anything I can do now?

We are faced with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world. We can do this by removing four outdated and expensive dams on the lower Snake River.
Following May's landmark court ruling, federal agencies are seeking the public’s input on what they should do. For years, scientists have said that removing the four deadly dams on the lower Snake is the single biggest step we can take to restore wild salmon to the river basin. Will you add your voice?
Sockeye salmon swim up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn the next generation's salmon.
Sockeye salmon swim up a Pacific Northwest river to spawn the next generation.

Salmon are astonishingly resilient. There is still a chance for future generations to know wild salmon—if we act now. Earthjustice is working to save wild salmon up and down the West Coast in legal cases involving water releases, dam operations and other harmful activities.