Trout Week is a great time to get excited about, well, all things trout. While learning about some new water, a new fly fishing technique, or that new fly pattern is great—and might even help you catch some fish—Trout Unlimited works throughout the country to conserve trout fisheries and restore natural habitats, but by now you all probably know this. Today, one of TU’s overarching goals is removing the four lower Snake River dams to restore the river and its native and wild salmon and steelhead.

Why the Lower Four Dams Need to Come Out

Salmon and steelhead throughout the Pacific coast teeter towards extinction. A devastating combination of factors contribute to this all but inevitable fate: human development, the strangulation of rivers, a changing climate, overharvest, and more. Yet, the dams throughout the west coast and notably in the Pacific Northwest have done by far the most harm. And in the Snake River basin, the four lower Snake River Dams (LSRDs), which should never have even been constructed in the first place, choke off wild populations of salmon and steelhead from otherwise intact and quality habitat and from the peoples most dependent.

  • LSRDs essentially create miles of slack water, wrecking havoc on juvenile salmon and steelhead born from a declining adult population. No downstream current prevents the efficient migration smolts once depended on and leave them susceptible to predation and the effects of poor water water quality.
  • In recent years, the number of salmon and steelhead smolts that pass through Lower Granite Dam for the ocean and return as adults (SAR) is just under two percent. Yet, a four percent or better SAR is required for healthy and harvestable populations of these once prolific salmon and steelhead runs. These fish are fading toward extinction unless the status quo changes.
  • Biologists from Oregon and Idaho, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and various tribes estimate removing the LSRDs will increase smolt-to-adult return ratios by four times. Also, removing the dams would return 140 miles of habitat to a naturally functioning river and significantly reduce the time it takes for smolts to make it to the ocean.
  • Independent and Government reports are now saying the same thing: the LSRDs threaten the survival of wild Snake River salmon and steelhead, and removing them represents the best opportunity to recover these iconic species.
  • The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians are unified behind removing the LSRDs.
  • While the dams do provide significant benefits to Northwest communities, all of those functions CAN be replaced and improved.

“It’s no longer a conversation about if but when the dams come out,” said Trout Unlimited’s Eric Crawford. “Collectively, we are that much closer to seeing the federal government uphold their trust obligation to Tribes throughout the Northwest and the recovery of harvestable abundant wild salmon and steelhead runs. As we transition to a planning phase, it’s important for folks to stay engaged, continue holding Congress accountable, ensuring electricity continues to be affordable and reliable, while developing agriculture commodity transportation infrastructure that is efficient and cost effective for farming families.”

The Snake River Dams are Coming Out

In just the last several months, the dialogue around Snake River restoration shifted from one of cautious optimism to “removing the LSRDs is an inevitability.” What fueled that shift you might ask. Well, it’s probably a myriad of factors, but recently published reports are making the same findings; Tribal communities are developing projects to offset the Dams’ outputs; Federal funds are flowing to jumpstart transition; and, all signs point to Snake River salmon and steelhead extirpating unless survival increases.

A Report from NOAA Fisheries this September found that, “breaching lower Snake River Dams–in conjunction with other fish protection measures–would have the highest increase in survival of all the alternatives considered.”

Ice Harbor Dam at Dusk, Ben Herndon.

And now, political leaders in the Northwest are more and more serious about removing the LSRDs and saving salmon and steelhead. It started with Idaho Representative Mike Simpson’s 2021 Energy and Salmon Concept. And then Washington Democrats, Governor Inslee and Senator Murray became involved. They released the Benefit Replacement Report earlier this summer that ultimately looked at Simpson’s plan and additional options in regard to recovering salmon and steelhead and replacing the Dams’ benefits. Read an excerpt from the Report below.

“To establish breach of the Lower Snake River Dams as a realistic and actionable option, we must focus on short- and medium-term actions to invest in the region’s transportation network and electrical grid. Importantly, we must also aggressively pursue projects and initiatives to restore habitat and support salmon recovery throughout the Columbia River Basin and the Puget Sound. The combination of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as other federal investments, provides an excellent opportunity to meet our national decarbonization goals, accelerate the deployment of existing and new renewable energy sources, and protect the future of critically important species.”

The report outlines the necessary actions to make breaching the LSRDs a viable option. However, it also acknowledges that substantial work would be needed to get to that point. But one thing is for sure. The wheels–and dollars–are in motion to realize a more connected and productive Snake River for salmon, Tribal communities, outdoor recreationists, and local businesses. “[The dams] have already outlasted their planned service life and will only grow more obsolete in the coming years,” said Trout Unlimited’s President and CEO, Chris Wood. “The only questions are, what will replace them, and will it be in time to save salmon for salmon.”

A Reflection From Time in the Snake River Basin

Earlier this Fall, I joined a group of TU leaders, industry partners, and diehard steelhead anglers on the Clearwater River, a major tributary of the Snake, to share perspectives and learn more about the work on the ground. While the spey anglers of the group never got our hands on a steelhead or one of the legendary B-runs that the Clearwater is known for, Eric Crawford prefers to actually catch fish and hooked into a beautiful wild buck and a hatchery fish day one. Eric organized the event and is a major force in the larger Snake River recovery campaign.

The entire experience was incredible, but two events stuck out–and will likely remain vivid memories for years to come: standing beneath Lower Granite Dam and a discussion with the Vice Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, Shannon Wheeler.

I’d seen the pictures of Lower Granite dam many, many times but I was entirely unprepared for the feeling of seeing it in person and realizing its impact.

Of the LSRDs, Lower Granite is furthest up the Snake River. Approaching the dam and then standing beneath it, I was somewhat dumbfounded to see something that looked nothing like a wild, famed river. I mean the Snake is supposed to be, and once was, a large, winding river that carved a deep canyon through Idaha. Yet, I saw two lakes on either side of this massive concrete structure stretching across the deep canyon.

It was a powerful experience. Immediately, while standing next to this dam, you realize its size and the power neeeded to halt a river as mighty as the Snake. Second, I quickly felt that something was off; it just didn’t feel natural. The water should be moving; there should be lush vegetation along the river banks. There should be salmon and steelhead. I should not be looking at sprinklers needed to keep birds off of the outflow for out migrating smolts.

It was angering, which made all the work and effort of those behind the Snake River Campaign make sense. Standing beneath that concrete structure, and behind all that free-flowing river and salmon potential, that feeling and motivation that had pushed them and is still was instilled in me. But then you think about how close we are to losing these fish and the ways of life tied to them.

The Nez Perce Tribe have lived throughout the Columbia River Basin for centuries, relying on the Columbia and Snake Rivers for food, travel, and their culture. I knew this, and to a certain extent all of us probably have some conception about the connection Native Americans have with their lands and waters. However, sitting on a porch overlooking the Clearwater River eating a meal of steelhead (hatchery) and elk backstrap with Vice Chairman Wheeler left me with an entirely new perspective.

Gary Woodcock paddling in front of Lower Granite Dam on the Lower Snake RIver in the Salish Flathead dugout canoe after going through the locks, Ben Herndon.

It’s not just a pursuit of recreation and enjoyment for the Nez Perce people. They so innately rely on these fish to sustain their culture and feed their communities. The Vice Chairman spoke of this passionately, yet seriously. He wants to see the salmon return, and his people need the salmon to return. Wheeler also understands the process, which is why the Nez Perce Tribe is green lighting projects to offset some of the benefits the Dams provide.

A Snake River hatchery steelhead fed us well!

During our meal, Vice Chairman Wheeler explained the history of the region, how he has watched the salmon and steelhead decline, and why we must recover them. He also reminded all of us that United States made a promise to his people and other tribes that their rights to harvest salmon and other resources would be preserved. However, the problem with that is there must be salmon in the water to uphold those treaty obligations.

There must be abundant salmon and steelhead populations in the water for all of us to enjoy and benefit from. That’s something that Wheeler likes to harp on. “Salmon are the golden thread that tie us all together. When that part of our culture is in trouble, we are all in trouble. When salmon do not thrive, we suffer as a people.”

Ultimately, an act of Congress is necessary to accomplish all of this, so Trout Unlimited developed an Action Page to urge Congress to remove the LSRDs and recover Snake River salmon and steelhead. I must say, I’ve been to some wild, remote places before, but there was something about hearing all the stories about how amazing and full of life the entire Snake River basin used to be–but then you think about how close we are, as a country, to loosing it. It doesn’t matter where you live, whether you fish for salmon and steelhead, Republican or Democrat, we must recover Snake River salmon and steelhead, and that starts with removing the four Lower Snake River Dams. Head on over to the Action Page and urge your members of Congress to Restore a free-flowing Lower Snake River.

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Will Poston
Will Poston has been with us here at Flylords since 2017 and is now our Conservation Editor. Will focuses on high-profile conservation issues, such as Pebble Mine, the Clean Water Act rollbacks, recovering the Pacific Northwest’s salmon and steelhead, and everything in-between. Will is from Washington, DC, and you can find him fishing on the tidal Potomac River in Washington, DC or chasing striped bass and Albies up and down the East Coast—and you know, anywhere else he can find a good bite!


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