Damaging Dams: Can Salmon Runs Be Restored on the Pacific Coast without Dam Removal?

In a victory for both salmon and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Bush Administration’s misguided strategy for making hydroelectric dams in the Columbia-Snake River Basin safe for salmon. Ruling against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claim that it was not necessary to consider the effects of the four dams on salmon because they were built before the implementation of the ESA, the judge acknowledged that it might be necessary to breach the dams to restore salmon populations.

Salmon populations throughout the world are struggling. The Puget Sound steelhead was recently listed as threatened under the ESA, and poor management plans for this and other salmon species are prevalent. One such plan, reintroduced as H.R. 1769 by Representatives from Washington and Oregon, is an ill-advised proposal to cull California sea lions that predate on Columbia River salmon. This proposal only serves as a short-term fix and ignores the real problem - the Bonneville Dam - which concentrates the salmon, attracting the sea lions. The recent court ruling leaves open the possibility that dam removal is a feasible option that should be considered.

Dams reduce the flow of water, obstruct salmon migration routes, and concentrate the fish, making them vulnerable to predators. Over the years, many raging rivers have been transformed into stagnant, warm lakes with depleted oxygen levels. This scenario is playing out in many areas on the West Coast. Although dams are harmful for salmon, their removal is controversial since they provide a clean source of power and aid in flood control and irrigation for farmers.

However, many outdated dams serve no purpose. For example, the Snake River dams do not store much water due to sediment build up, and they only produce about 5 percent of the region’s power. Similarly, the two hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River were originally built to support a timber mill that has since been retired; they no longer generate any power. Thankfully, the process of removing the Elwha River dams is underway.

The most controversial case by far involves the four dams in the Klamath River basin, home of the threatened Coho salmon. In 2002, over 30,000 of these fish perished in the river due to low river flows caused by river diversions. For years, there has been a push for the removal of the dams, which produce electricity for thousands of customers and irrigation water to farmers.

Earlier this year, the federal government ruled that PacifiCorp, the owner of the dams, must modify the dams with fish ladders to accommodate salmon migrations. However, some estimates show that the removal of the dams may actually be more cost effective than modifications. No decisions have yet been made on the future of the dams, but dam removal projects such as that in the Goldsborough Creek in Washington State highlight how they can help salmon. Five years ago, the ancient dams were removed, and the salmon populations have since flourished, having access to habitat that had been obstructed for 120 years.

In March, US Representatives Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Thomas Petri (R-WI) introduced H.R. 1507, the Salmon Economic Analysis and Planning Act (SEAPA), calling for more research into the proper methods of salmon management in the Columbia River Basin, including dam removal. We commend these legislators and the bipartisan bill’s 30 cosponsors, as the measure is a necessary step toward the recovery of depleted salmon runs.