#FreetheSnake – A Salmon’s Fight for Survival

Snake River Idaho

Snake River photo by @lcarver44


The great salmon of the Pacific Northwest are in danger and they need our help. We feel it is important to give a voice to the voiceless, especially when that voice has a major impact on our region. There are four large-scale dams on the Columbia-Snake River in Southeastern Washington that were created to increase economic viability of the region’s food transportation sector, particularly for Wheat. Today, the economic competitiveness of transporting food products and other commodities only make sense due to subsidies. In comparison, if these subsidies were taken away, transporting commodities by rail makes more sense.


Why not use railroads? Since 2009, capital investments into freight and passenger railroad infrastructure has exceeded $75 billion.  Our nation’s rail infrastructure is and has been vital to a vibrant US economy. The Pacific Northwest, according to the Oregonian newspaper spends a billion dollars a year on salmon recovery with little return on those funds. Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest River Partners, which represents public utilities, port districts and farm groups, had this to say “We think the dams need to stay in place because of the multiple benefits they provide.” Ah, not so fast Terry...


Let’s take a step back to understand the core functions of a river. A river acts like the circulatory system of an ecosystem, the heartbeat and arteries if you will, carrying solids to the ocean. Rivers also act like a septic system carrying away waste products from land runoff. Rivers carry and deposit this sediment forming habitats along rivers banks, building beaches and sustaining aquatic environments. In this case, salmon act like nitrogen pumps (fertilizer). Salmon are a vital piece of the food chain and are eaten by a variety of different animals, the obvious being humans, bears, wolves and birds of prey.

Bear eating a salmon

Photo by Help Go Abroad

The wilderness nexus of the Lower Snake River Basin is one of the most beautiful places in the world. A consequence of dams is the disruption of natural habitats. A dam essentially turns a river into a lake. A 2015 study done by the Northwest Energy Coalition found that dam removal would have a minor impact on electricity costs, stating that residential customers of public power companies would pay about $1 more per month.

 Lower Granite Lock & Dam

The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River photo by The Spokesman


The main reason for these dams was for food transportation (Wheat) and power generation. If we eliminate those subsidies transporting food products by rail is economically competitive. A dam’s primary function is to increase the economic output of a region when that is no longer the case a dam becomes obsolete. We can look at the economic cost of these dams and realize the consequences outweigh the benefits at this point. According to Jim Waddell, retired Army Corps of Engineers, these four dams are costing the national economy 150$ million a year to maintain.

 Lower Snake River Dams

Four dams on the lower Snake River photo by @patagonia


Back in May, U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon stated that the latest and fifth federal plan protecting Salmon wasn’t adequate, ordering agencies to prepare a new one by early 2018. These plans are mandated by the Endangered Species Act, in Washington alone, there are eight salmon species categorized as threatened and two endangered. While Judge Simon said he wouldn’t dictate what options agencies should consider, he said a proper analysis under federal law “may well require” considering breaching, bypassing or removing one or more of the lower Snake River dams.  


In my opinion, 2018 isn’t soon enough. Let’s look at some numbers, in a typical year, only about 40 percent of the Idaho Sockeye counted on the Lower Columbia-Snake River make it back to Idaho spawning grounds. During last year’s drought, mortality was in the 99 percent range due to warm water in the four lower Snake reservoirs. New studies are coming out that show fish hatcheries reduce the survival rates of wild fish.This is just not acceptable; we will not trade out the livelihood of a keystone species to produce energy or ‘improve’ trade routes. 

Little Goose Fish Ladder

Little Goose Fish Ladder 


The Army Corps of Engineers say that more than 90 percent of the river’s young fish survive passage through each dam’s fish ladders. But the total effect from dams and slack-water reservoirs add up to mortality rates of 50 percent or more for Idaho-spawned fish as they migrate to the ocean. Basically, the alternative methods, besides removing the dams, are not working.


“The Snake River Basin today holds the largest intact remaining set of pristine (salmon) habitat in the lower 48, over 5,000 miles of stream habitat in central Idaho alone.” Sam Mace – Save Our Wild Salmon

 Columbia River in Southeast Washington

Lower Columbia River in Southeast Oregon Photo by EP News Wire


“Healthy salmon populations could support tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars annually in the recreation and tourism economy,” said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

By removing a dam, a river will quickly recover its core functions, leading to the recovery of the salmon populations along the Snake River. The final meeting to discuss options will be held on December 8th, after that, a plan to save the salmon must be implemented. We will be monitoring and commenting on the latest developments. Let’s make the Snake River great again!

Watch the Free the Snake: Restoring America’s Greatest Salmon River by Patagonia


There are two actions we can take to speed up this process:

First, sign the petition to #FreetheSnake, we are in need of only 2,613 signatures. Let’s make this happen! https://www.change.org/p/barack-obama-crack-down-on-deadbeat-dams

Second, sign the letter by the Idaho Rivers United to focus remediation efforts by the US Army Corps of Engineers: http://www.idahorivers.org/free-the-snake


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