Snake Dams and the Salmon Topic of the Upcoming Tri-Cities Badger Club


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Is it finally time to agree that the lower four dams of the Snake River should be breached to save salmon migrations?

Perhaps no other environmental issue has been more debated in the Northwest than this one. Politicians are increasingly leaning towards violation – even as energy, agriculture and shipping interests warn of dire consequences.

The non-profit Columbia Basin Badger Club first tackled this issue in 2009, and on Thursday, June 16, we’ll return to the issue from a different perspective — that of veteran Northwest journalists who have covered Both sides. The hour-long forum will begin at noon and will be presented online via Zoom.

Rocky Barker, a retired environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, points out that people in the Northwest have spent some $18 billion to mitigate the impacts of dams on salmon after repeated rulings by federal judges that Agencies operating the dams are violating the Endangered Species Act.

Still, says Barker, “It’s just not good enough. Spring chinook, sockeye salmon, and steelhead trout are all heading toward extinction in the Snake River watershed, which includes the best remaining pristine habitat in the lower 48 states.

The statesman editorialized that breaking the Lower Snake Dams in Washington to restore salmon runs and mitigate impacts on power, grain transportation and irrigation would be cheaper and more efficient.

Barker says the political tide is turning with the recognition that dam breaking is also about tribal justice. And he says fisheries biologists believe that restoring wild salmon access to quality high-altitude spawning habitat would reverse the loss of those fish runs.

“Now is the time for all of us to come together and work hard to secure our future and end the salmon wars,” he said.

But Ken Robertson, retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, says, “The straightforward and unmistakable answer to Northwesterners who want to break the dams on the Lower Snake River and save the salmon is really quite simple: this won’t work.


Robertson maintains that these are simple percentages. From all available studies, it appears that about half of the salmon smolts that migrate downstream from the handful of Snake River tributaries not blocked by the various wedged dams in the Snake River Canyon in the Idaho, do not reach the Pacific Ocean to begin this phase of their life cycle. .

How many will get to the ocean without the dams? There is plenty of room for debate, but natural predation, warm river temperatures aggravated during low water years due to naturally low runoff in late summer and early fall and several other factors will still eliminate large numbers of juvenile fish. Is it half as much as the dams? Twice more? It doesn’t really matter.

And Robertson says that no matter how many more survive the trip to the ocean, the stark fact is that currently only 1% survive to return. It is likely that even fewer fish than this will return as the impacts of climate change take their toll.

“Breaking the dams is therefore an attempt to solve the wrong problem. It is the ocean conditions that are the real problem,” he says.

Robertson points out that a 2020 study led by Dr. David Welch found salmon survival along the entire west coast of North America dropped by 65%. Whether a river has dams or no dams, whether it is in the wilderness of northern British Columbia or northern California, the statistics are remarkably the same.

“There are many other reasons not to remove the play-offs, which will no doubt be discussed at the Badger Club forum on June 16. But these numbers are decisive for me,” Robertson said.

Registration for the one-hour online forum can be done at Non-members are charged $5 while club members can attend for free. An informal half hour called Table Talk will follow where audience members can share their thoughts.

Rocky Barker is the Idaho Statesman’s retired environmental journalist and was the lead researcher in a series of groundbreaking editorials in 1997 calling for the breaking of four Snake River dams to save salmon. The team was the first winner of the Dolly Connelly Environmental Journalism Award in 1998. Barker told the salmon story in 2017 by following the return of endangered salmon from Idaho to the Columbia River to the sources for a fresh look at the issue. The series inspired Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson to come up with a plan to remove the four dams, replace their services, and reform river governance.

Ken Robertson, retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has worked as a reporter and editor since 1968 and remains a member of the Herald’s editorial board. Since his retirement, he continues to write for and is an associate editor and columnist for his print publication, Great Northwest Wine. He also writes for the wine website,, and works as a wine industry consultant for the Port of Kennewick, a wine guide for the American Empress sternwheeler, and a wine judge in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. The Tri-City Herald is a strong advocate for maintaining the Lower Snake Dams for their energy, irrigation, and transportation value.

Kirk Williamson, a retired broadcaster, is president of the Badger Club. He was the founding vice president of club programs.

This story was originally published June 14, 2022 04:00.

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