Why Biden’s dam destruction won’t save the salmon

Last week, Mitch and I detailed the massive costs associated with replacing the electricity generated by the Lower Snake River (LSR) dams with 100 percent wind, solar, and battery storage. Today, we’ll explain why destroying these dams won’t even save the salmon.

Dam-destroying proponents often paid this strategy as a silver-bullet solution to salmon restoration, but research shows that there are a multitude of factors that affect salmon recovery rates, such as availability of estuary habitat, water temperatures, and predation from seals and sea lions, and that destroying the LSR dams would have minimal impact on salmon populations.  

Todd Myers, the Director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center, is also a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and is one of the most results-oriented and data-driven people in the salmon recovery space in Washington State. In his Congressional Testimony, Myers wrote that federal scientists don’t even believe the LSR dams should be removed: 

“The most comprehensive study of the impact of the dams ever completed, the Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement, determined the dams should not be removed. That study concluded keeping the dams would “meet the Improve Juvenile Salmon, Improve Adult Salmon, and Improve Lamprey objectives.” 

To understand why the EIS supported keeping the dams and why focusing on the Snake River dams is counterproductive, it is important to understand the current state of salmon runs. The Seattle Times recently noted, “The state and tribes have invested millions to raise hatchery fish, restore critical habitat, keep rivers cool and clean up industrial and agricultural pollution. Yet the efforts haven’t been enough to keep the river open to fishing this summer…”   

The story wasn’t about the Snake River, but the Snohomish River in Western Washington, where no dams exist. While some are fixated on the status of salmon on the Snake River, the unfortunate reality is that salmon across the Pacific Northwest are struggling.   

The challenge Washington and neighboring states face is that recovery is complex and we have to address numerous factors. Lack of quality habitat – good estuaries and floodplains or fish barriers like culverts – is one problem. High water temperatures in streams is another threat. A report this year from the Washington State Academy of Scientists noted that the number of Chinook being eaten by seals and sea lions is “substantial and has increased steadily,” concluding that “predation is considered a primary driver of increasing mortality rates.” 

Unfortunately, salmon populations are struggling throughout the Pacific Northwest regardless of whether the rivers have dams or not, and the Biden administration’s politically motivated attempts to destroy the LSR dams will expend massive amounts of money for minimal environmental progress.