The threat that dams and climate change pose to wild salmon and steelhead landed the lower Snake River on a national environmental group’s list of the nation’s most endangered waterways.
American Rivers released its annual list of rivers the group deems to be critically endangered and placed the Snake in the second spot. That is down one spot from the 2021 list that had the Snake as the nation’s most imperiled.
The Snake was replaced in the top spot by the Colorado River, where drought and over-appropriation threaten the drinking water of tens of millions of people and the intricate ecology of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
The Snake River has made the group’s list frequently over the years because of the poor condition of wild runs of sockeye, spring, summer and fall chinook, and steelhead that are listed as either threatened or endangered.
Looming decisions over what steps should be taken to save the fish and whether that should include breaching the four lower Snake River dams helped propel the Snake to the top end of the list. The group bases the list on three main criteria — pending major decisions that the public can weigh in on, the significance of the river to people and wildlife, and the magnitude of the threat to the river and the degree to which climate change plays a role.
The Snake River has some of each. For decades, the Nez Perce Tribe, environmental organizations and fishing groups have advocated for the four lower Snake River dams to be breaching. Doing so would restore the river to its free-flowing state and reduce dam-related fish mortality, including elevated summertime water temperatures made worse by climate change. The Snake produces a significant portion of the salmon and steelhead that return to the Columbia River basin, and high-elevation tributaries in Idaho and northeastern Oregon are seen as wild salmon strongholds.
“We can save salmon from extinction and revitalize the rivers that are the beating heart of this place we call home,” said Wendy McDermott, northwest region director of American Rivers. “We can honor commitment to tribes and invest in a future of abundant salmon, clean energy and thriving agriculture.”
But breaching the dams would eliminate tug-and-barge transportation used by inland wheat farmers to efficiently get their crops to market. The lower Snake River is also a small part of the Columbia River Federal Hydropower System and breaching the dams would reduce power generation. Advocates of the dams say breaching is not needed, would hurt farmers and would eliminate a source of carbon-free power that could be replaced sources that burn fossil fuels such as natural gas.
Federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration have said breaching would help the fish but have rejected it as too costly.
But the momentum for breaching has been on the rise. Last year, the breaching debate reached Congress when Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, introduced his $33.5 billion concept that would breach the dams and mitigate affected communities and industries. This spring, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray are expected to release the findings of a draft study looking at ways to replace the services provided by the dam and decide by July 31 whether to back the dams or breaching. That is the same day that a pause in a long-running lawsuit is scheduled to sunset. Plaintiffs that include the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon and environmental and fishing groups are in talks with the federal government. Both sides have said they are seeking long-term solutions to the decadeslong court battle.
Before last year, the lower Snake was last on the endangered waterways list in 2009, when it was named the third-most imperiled river. It landed at the top of the list in 1999 and 2000 and has appeared on the list a handful of other years, each time because of dams and the harm they cause salmon and steelhead.