Informing the future with the past: dam removals benefit wild salmon

Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River near the Yankee Fork prior to its breaching in 1934. Source: USFG

Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River near the Yankee Fork prior to its breaching in 1934. (Photo courtesy Idaho Department of Fish and Game)

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

The Pacific Northwest is showing the nation that salmon return when dams are removed, a common-sense solution to an age-old problem.

In the past decade, more than a half-dozen dams have come down in the region. Fifty-foot-tall Marmot and 16-foot-tall Sandy dams were removed from the Sandy River in Oregon. On the Elwha River in Washington state, 106-foot-tall Elwha Dam is gone, and 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam is 75 percent removed. And 125-foot-tall Condit Dam was demolished on the White Salmon River in the Columbia River Gorge.

These modern-day dam removals might seem a remarkable step in a region where more than 400 dams have been erected, but we’ve been here before. Idaho began removing dams to recover salmon in 1934 and went on to take out two more dams that specifically benefited ailing runs of native salmon and steelhead in 1963 and 1973.

In each case, removal was far easier and painless than some predicted. And in each case, salmon returned to their historic spawning grounds rapidly. With Glines Canyon Dam, the Washington state dam removal that is not yet complete, salmon are expected to rebound as rapidly as with the other already-completed dam removals.

Biologists confirm the results. Following removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River on Oct. 6, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study focusing on relocation of salmon upriver of the former dam site. The service’s study, published in 2013, reported that salmon returned with little assistance from hatcheries. In 2011, 85 percent of the returning run of fall chinook salmon were of natural origin while in 2012 93 percent were of natural origin.

When these projects were built roughly a century ago, little regard was given to their impacts on the ecosystem, and on salmon and steelhead in particular. Most of the dams completely wiped out salmon runs.

“When people in the region started talking about dam removal ,there were some who were worried about what would happen when sediments were released into the rivers, but those concerns proved to be unwarranted,” said IRU board member and avid Idaho fisherman Tom Stuart. “What we gained in return in the form of revitalized salmon and steelhead runs is something we certainly expected—though worth celebrating.”

Although the region has experienced so much success with removing outdated and unneeded dams, four of the biggest salmon killers are still intact. The four lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington state impede migration to and from the Pacific for fish born in Idaho—a 6,000-foot, 900-mile journey for some fish.

What’s more, the four dams on the lower Snake are of marginal benefit to society and require enormous taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies. They produce 2 percent, on average, of the region’s electricity. They provide a barging channel that must be maintained by expensive taxpayer-funded dredging activities.

Lin Laughy, a Kooskia, Idaho resident and IRU member, crunched numbers and determined the 20-year cost of maintaining the shipping channel in the lower Snake River alone would be $60 to $80 million if a current Army Corps of Engineers dredging proposal is implemented. Based on annual averages for barges arriving at the Port of Lewiston, the subsidy for each barge–which comes from federal and local taxes–would be $16,415. That price tag jumps to $21,525 per barge when the cost of a $16 million Corps study on the feasibility of dredging is incorporated into the estimate. The costs in the analysis do not include the maintenance and repair of locks at each dam.

The United State has built some 80,000 dams in its history, but for a myriad of reasons including actual costs and environmental costs we’re not building them anymore. We’ve removed nearly 800 aging and outdated dams in the past 20 years nationwide, and that number is expected to grow as more dams outlive their usefulness.

The dam removals of the past offer important lessons for residents of the Snake River watershed — including for Idahoans. For Idaho’s salmon, the science is clear: the four dams on the lower Snake River are the most significant impediment to survival.  Following a federal district court’s August 2011 rejection of the latest federal salmon recovery plan—the third such rejection—Idaho Rivers United believes it’s time to bring key regional players together to begin a collaborative process to find lasting solutions. Such a process would include conservationists, fishermen, tribes, power producers, barging and transportation interests, farmers, irrigators and the states. In December 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initiated a process that could work toward that goal.

Called a stakeholder assessment, NOAA’s effort thus far is a collection of viewpoints from throughout the region to take the temperature of all affected stakeholders. The agency plans to publish its findings late in 2013. Along with a final Environmental Impact Statement from the Army Corps on lower Snake River dredging and a draft biological opinion on salmon recovery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration due out at roughly the same time, the stars are aligning in the Pacific Northwest for the federal government to do more for our once-prodigious salmon runs.

“The time for a stakeholder solutions table is here,” said IRU salmon program director Greg Stahl. “The region can’t afford the economic uncertainty caused by a continued courtroom merry-go-round, and our salmon can’t afford another decade of legal wrangling, either.”

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