Lower Snake River dam removal is a golden key, if not a silver bullet

In Snake River by Rob Masonis8 Comments

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts that show why the four dams on the lower Snake River must come out to ensure a future for Snake River salmon and steelhead. Read the previous posts in our series here, herehereand here.

“Removing the lower Snake River dams is not a silver bullet for salmon recovery.” 

If I received a dollar every time I heard that argument as a reason to keep the four lower Snake River dams in place, I would have a mound of cash. 

But questioning whether dam removal alone could recover Snake River salmon and steelhead misses the point.  

The question we need to answer is this: Can we recover abundant, healthy, and fishable and harvestable Snake River salmon and steelhead with the four lower Snake River dams in place?  The answer—based on overwhelming scientific evidence and 30 years of recovery efforts that have barely moved the needle—is a resounding no. 

Why? Because the harm caused by the dams swamps the benefits to salmon and steelhead that would otherwise flow from other recovery actions. Unless we vastly reduce mortality caused by the four lower Snake River dams and the 140 miles of slack-water reservoirs they create, there is no path to recovery.  

We just can’t get there without dam removal. If we could, we would have a lot more progress to show for the billions of dollars spent to date.  

A free-flowing Snake River is the ‘golden key’ to restoring salmon and steelhead to the basin.
Image: Eric Crawford/TU

As my colleague and TU’s senior scientist, Helen Neville, explained in the first installment of this series, the key to recovery is reducing mortality caused directly or indirectly by the dams and reservoirs, so enough adult fish return to the Snake to produce more fish.   

Today, smolt-to-adult returns for Snake River stocks are well below 2 percent. In other words, fewer than two adults return for every 100 juveniles that head to the Pacific as smolts. This puts these fish on a trajectory toward extinction.

We have to get smolt-to-adult return ratios up into the 4- to 6-percent range and sustain Snake River stocks. That’s how we rebuild salmon and steelhead populations that are resilient in the face of climate change. That’s how we meet our harvest obligations to Columbia Basin tribes and provide economic and quality-of-life benefits to Snake Basin communities. 

The series to date

As many peer-reviewed studies have shown, removing the lower Snake River dams is necessary to achieve that threshold. No collection of actions without dam removal can get us there.  

But stopping the analysis there would miss a critically important point: removing the lower Snake River dams is not just necessary to recover these fish, it is the “golden key” that will unlock the potential benefits of other actions.   

Our current approach to Snake River salmon recovery is primarily focused on restoring tributary habitat throughout the basin, and using conservation hatcheries to prop-up critically endangered populations, such as sockeye salmon. Good, well-intentioned people are doing this work, including many TU staff and volunteers, but the stark fact is that without removing the lower Snake dams, these efforts will be futile.  

Spending enormous sums of money on actions whose benefits are negated by mortality caused by the gauntlet of dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake is doomed to fail — and fail at great cost.  If you were losing a large amount of blood from a gaping wound and had several smaller wounds as well, would you want your doctor to focus only on tending to the smaller wounds?  

No one I know on either side of the dam removal debate is happy with the poor return on investment that we are getting with the billions we’ve spent on salmon recovery actions to date tending to those smaller wounds. 

Contrast that bleak reality with what could be achieved if we remove the lower Snake dams—the “gaping wound” in the Snake River. 

To achieve long-term fishable and harvestable populations of salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin, the four dams on the lower Snake River must come out. 
Image: Eric Crawford/TU

Restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River would vastly improve salmon and steelhead survival, putting the 4- to 6-percent smolt-to-adult ratio goal within reach. It would also enable us to realize the benefits of past and future recovery actions and investments by enabling restored habitat in rivers including the Grand Ronde, Lemhi and Clearwater to produce more fish. A single female Chinook lays 5,000 eggs on average. 

The expensive conservation hatchery currently keeping Snake River sockeye on life-support could actually get enough fish back to their natal lakes in Idaho to re-establish naturally reproducing populations that could persist even in the face of climate change.  

With extinction looming, there is no time to waste. We must unlock the recovery power of a free-flowing lower Snake River. If we have the will to do so, we could exceed—not just meet—Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery goals, and that would be a boon not only to the fish but to the tribes and communities whose well-being is inextricably linked to them.  

So let’s break out the “golden key” and realize that future.

Take Action for the Lower Snake Dams.   


  1. Why are the declining numbers the same in the rest of the rivers on the west coast that don’t have dams???

    1. So you are saying that having these dams in place for 30 years has had no detrimental effect on the smolt to adult return rate.

  2. Your opinion articles conveniently avoid addressing idaho’s years of salmon range mismanagement. These are the same waters in the Sawtooth/Salmon River region Idaho implemented decades of poisoning programs with the goal of eradicating salmon to enhance trout fisheries.
    Your articles also avoid the 3 dams in the Hells Canyon Complex constructed by Idaho Power. that have no fish passage capacity. These 3 dams block historic salmon migratory routes up the Snake River to Shoshone Falls.
    While both sides of the dam removal issue promote talking points it seems actual facts are at a premium.
    Since we’re at the point of which liar goes last in this argument I’m guessing this will all be settled with more litigation.

    1. Are you saying David that we need to do nothing because there is no problem?

  3. I don’t ant the dams removed unless there is a proven alternative to generate electricity and to move cargo up and down the Columbia waterway.

  4. I don’t want the damns removed unless there is a proven better alternative for generating electricity and moving cargo on the Columbia waterway.

  5. Even Alaska s. Numbers are way down maybe too many predators in the ocean and the rivers …seals and sea lions

  6. First, it amazes me how dam removal proponents only tell part of the story. The previous comments allude to this. It’s how so called “discussions” get carried out in today’s world of opinion based “news”. Here are a few points that I consider facts, based on my 30+ year career in watershed management.
    1) 30 years of habitat restoration doesn’t equate to fully restored habitat. Often, these actions merely set in motion the pathway for recovery. The actual recovery rate of watersheds varies, by a lot. For example, a seedling planted on a stream bank may take 100 years or more to mature, then topple into the stream to provide a large wood component necessary for good habitat in appropriate stream types.
    2) This article appears to assume that the four lower Snake River dams are the biggest limiting factor in recovery of salmon and steelhead. Based on what? As a previous comment stated, how come other west coast streams, without dams, are suffering declines as well? Why? Because many factors exist that influence survival. A favorite river that I fish in Alaska had a big dieoff of smolts two years ago, due to low and warm water conditions. No dams, and no management (timber/roads) in this river system.
    3)A 4-6% smolt to adult survival rate is very hopeful, but not realistic. Tell me where that exists in today’s world.
    4) This summer has given us a taste of what climate change is looking like. It should be a wake up call for everyone, including those who predict the future in terms of survival of a whole host of species. I find it arrogant that someone states that dam removal will promote recovery “even in the face of climate change”. What does a changing climate say to those who state such atrocities? Hold my beer.

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