Dave Finkelnburg

Dave Finkelnburg

When Lewis and Clark reached the mouth of the Columbia it was the greatest salmon-producing river in the world. Now all salmon runs up its largest tributary, the Snake River, are nearing extinction.

That is a huge change in just over 200 years.

Snake River salmon face challenges unheard of before Europeans arrived in the Northwest of our country. Once cold, clean rivers are now a confusion of dams, warm reservoirs, electric power turbines and introduced predators.

Oceans are heavily fished. Water conditions there are being affected by our changing climate.

In the face of this Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has proposed removing the four lower-Snake River dams in Washington to save the salmon. For details, see simpson.house.gov/salmon.

That’s another huge change.

Republicans who worked with Democrats in support of the massive government investment it took to build these dams are not today’s Republicans. Now such investment would be attacked with the angry charge, “Socialism!”

That is just what the dam construction was — pure socialism. These dams were built 100 percent with tax dollars. The government runs the dams. Congress appropriates tax money to maintain them.

Congress has handed over more than $17 billion since 1980 just for salmon recovery. Since the fish runs are still dwindling the price tag will get even higher unless something is done with the dams.

To see Idaho Republicans almost universally defending socialism today is quite a change. No elected Idaho Republican official I am aware of has backed Simpson’s idea. His only elected support has come from Democrats. Isn’t that ironic?

The four dams, of course, do a lot that is positive for many people. The dams together create 146 miles of reservoirs that people can enjoy for recreation.

From power generation the dams provide about 4 percent of the electricity used in the Northwest. In a serious cold spell, the dams can provide most of their power over a few hours each day when demand for home heating soars.

The dams are operated to permit barge traffic on the Snake River. With the dams Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, are water ports. Barge traffic to Portland, Oregon, carries most of the grain grown on the Palouse Prairie of Idaho and Washington.

Now irrigators of much of the 90,000 acres farmed where the Snake River meets the Columbia are backing a portion of Simpson’s plan. The Seattle Times reported this week that the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association is actively promoting dramatically lowering the water level behind Little Goose and Lower Granite Dams, the two Washington dams closest to Idaho on the Snake River.

Neither dam would be able to produce power any longer. The drawdown would remove over 1.6 gigawatts of installed hydropower generating capacity from the Northwest electricity grid.

The drawdowns would also end barging on the lower Snake River. Grain from the Palouse would have to be shipped by rail or truck.

Salmon, and steelhead, however, would be migrating on 76 more miles of free-flowing river. They wouldn’t have to navigate that distance in warmer water that lacks a strong current to guide their journeys.

That even some irrigators support effectively putting two lower Snake River dams out of service is a major change.

In the past, the agriculture community and river ports have stood united in support of the dams. Now Palouse grain growers, who operate almost entirely on dry farms, and bargers, find themselves at odds with growers near the lower Snake River.

“Something’s going to happen with the dams,” irrigators’ spokesman Darryll Olsen, Ph.D., told me this week. “The lower Snake River is not going to stay the same.”

The stress salmon suffer from reservoirs and dams is often fatal. It’s the main reason so few of the fish survive the round trip through or around the eight dams between Idaho and the ocean now.

Simpson notes that for every 100 smolts (young salmon) leaving Idaho down the Snake River, only one returns as an adult to spawn. In Pacific coast rivers and on the Columbia where there are four or fewer dams to pass, the return rate is three to four adult salmon.

The Snake River adult salmon return rate, says Simpson, is reported to be, “below replacement and on a trajectory towards extinction.” Simpson’s dam proposal, or some form of it such as the irrigators suggest, may be the last, best chance for the salmon.

Without action on the Snake River the final change will be that salmon no longer return to Idaho.

Dave Finkelnburg is a long-time Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.