The Sunbeam story: salmon return when dams come down

Lonesome Larry at Sunbeam Dam

Lonesome Larry examines the blown-up ramparts of Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River.

By Steve Guild, IRU Summer Intern

Sunbeam Dam was built on the Salmon River near the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in 1910 and effectively wiped out the native run of sockeye salmon to and from the Pacific Ocean. After providing power for one year the powerhouse was shut down, but the dam sat idle and continued to kill salmon until it was removed in 1934.

The mystery surrounding Sunbeam’s partial demolition has been perpetuated in modern myth and legend. In his book “Politics Western Style,” former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus spun such a yarn.

“A party or parties unknown ran a dynamite-laden raft into Sunbeam Dam,” Andrus writes. “The river again flowed freely and was repopulated by the salmon whose migration had been blocked.”

Author Steven Hawley, who published “Recovering a Lost River” in 2011, tells a similar story about angry miners blowing up the dam in the dark of night. Neither Andrus or Hawley invented these oft-told dramatic tales, but the true story may be much less exciting.

Gary Gadwa, a former Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer and Stanley-area history buff, has been working to set the record straight.

“Idaho Fish and Game did actually contract with local miners to blast out the Sunbeam Dam that was sitting right in the way of migrating salmon,” Gadwa said. “However, the 300 tons of concrete of Sunbeam Sam still sit across the river in its entirety as only the earthen works were successfully removed from the river.”

Populations of sockeye salmon rebounded immediately after the dam was breached.

“Sockeye runs approached 4,000 by the early 1950s,” said Gadwa, who explained that landlocked sockeye, called kokanee, may have shifted their natural life cycles to repopulate the decimated sockeye run. Sockeye that historically numbered in the hundreds of thousands began to rebound.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, four dams were erected on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state, and Idaho’s salmon began a dramatic downward trend that continues to threaten their very existence. In 1992 only one sockeye salmon, dubbed Lonesome Larry, returned to Idaho. Chinook salmon and steelhead have been similarly impacted.

“Hundreds of miles downstream, however, where the Salmon joins the Snake River, the fish must run a gauntlet of eight federal dams before they reach the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon,” Andrus writes.

This is a journey Idaho’s salmon must make twice in their lives, once as juveniles migrating to the ocean and again as adults returning to Idaho to spawn. The downstream journey in particular is lethal for Idaho fish.

Since sockeye salmon were listed as an endangered species in 1991, pressure on the four salmon-killing dams on the lower Snake River has mounted. The federal government, though, has failed to write a salmon recovery plan that is legal or biologically sound. In 2011, a federal court threw out the government’s fourth federal salmon plan for failing to do enough. The court ordered federal agencies to take a harder look at how the lower Snake River dams impact salmon survival.

“NOAA Fisheries shall produce a new biological opinion that reevaluates [proposed actions] in avoiding jeopardy, identifies reasonably specific mitigation plans for the life of the biological opinion, and considers whether more aggressive action, such as dam removal and/or additional flow augmentation and reservoir modifications are necessary to avoid jeopardy,” the court wrote.

Sunbeam Dam is not an exception or anomaly. When dams are removed, salmon return. For fishing families and fishing communities, salmon are integral parts of a strong local economy. Moreover, they are a source of cultural pride in a region where rivers and towns are named after salmon. They also fuel mountain ecosystems with nutrients derived from the ocean.

Idaho’s early residents understood these things, and it’s why they removed Sunbeam Dam. This is also what Idahoans have at stake today.

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