Snake River Dams to Be Improved, Not Breached

PORTLAND, Oregon, September 12, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to improve fish passages at four dams on the lower Snake River, rather than removing the dams entirely, to boost the survival of dwindling salmon populations. The decision comes on the heels of a new study suggesting that dam removal would create jobs and leave the Northwestern economy unharmed.


Fourteen Pacific Northwest populations of salmon and steelhead, like this chinook salmon, are listed as threatened. (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
The Corps announced this week it has chosen major system improvements, now called "adaptive migration," as the selected alternative in its study of improving salmon passage through the four lower Snake River dams. Brigadier General David Fastabend, the Corps' Northwestern Division commander, signed the Record of Decision on September 9.

"The Corps is committed to assisting in the restoration of salmon and steelhead," said Fastabend.

The record of decision documents the Corps' selected action as a result of the Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study process. About 9,000 people attended meetings held on the study and more than 230,000 written comments were received on the Corps' draft document.

"A key factor in selecting the alternative includes compatibility with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2000 Biological Opinions on the operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System," said Lonnie Mettler, Walla Walla District project manager for the feasibility study.

The selected alternative provides flexibility on the methods that may be used to improve migration conditions within the river and techniques for transporting fish around dams, to improve the survival rates of juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead. The selected alternative also provides less uncertainty in current biological information, minimizes economic impacts to users and minimizes effects to other environmental resources, the Corps said.

dam The Lower Granite Dam, one of four blocking migrating salmon on the Snake River (Photo by Doug Thiele courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The proposed changes include improving the coordination and implementation of water spilled over the dams, increased in river flows, and transporting juvenile fish around dams in trucks or other methods.

Structural changes include spillway improvements, upgrading adult fish passage systems, upgrading juvenile fish facilities and additional fish transportation barges. Proposed long term improvements include turbine upgrades, removable spillway weirs and surface bypass structures.

The purpose of the feasibility study, which began in 1995, was to examine ways of improving salmon passage through the four lower Snake River dams and reservoirs - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. The dams and locks cost $36.5 million dollars a year to maintain, including the costs of maintaining fish facilities and the fish transportation program.

The annual value of power, transportation and water supply provided by the lower Snake River dams is estimated at $324 million. The estimated cost of implementing the proposed structural improvements and changes in operations is $390 million dollars over a period of 10 years.

Four alternatives were identified and explored by the study, including maintaining the dams' existing condition, transporting the maximum number of juvenile salmon, major systems improvements or adaptive migration, and breaching some or all of the dams.

fish ladder

The Corps proposes improving fish passages like this fish ladder on Ice Harbor Dam.
Last week, the RAND Corporation, an independent non-profit research firm, released a study suggesting that the rejected dam breaching alternative could create almost 15,000 new jobs. Supporters of dam breaching to save endangered salmon say the study refutes the Bush administration's claims that dam removal would cost jobs in the Pacific Northwest.

"Snake River salmon have declined by 90 percent since we built the four lower Snake River dams," said Bruce Babbitt, former Interior Secretary under President Bill Clinton.

"What the RAND report tells us is that we can change that mistake," Babbitt added. We can remove these four dams and build a future without impacting economic growth in the Northwest - indeed, we can create more jobs. This report demonstrates that by removing the dams, we can both improve the regional economy and save the salmon."

The RAND study, sponsored by the PEW Charitable Trusts, also looked at the economics of alternative energy sources to meet the Northwest's growing demand for electricity. In the Northwest, where power prices are the lowest in the nation, RAND found that alternative energy sources are a cost effective alternative to hydroelectric dams and other traditional power providers.

"RAND's findings affirm that acting for a more secure Northwest energy supply while at the same time securing a future for salmon by removing the lower four Snake River dams can be done without severe economic disruption, and in fact with a net increase in employment," said Mark Van Putten, president and CEO of the conservation group National Wildlife Federation.


Millions of dollars are now spent trucking young salmon past the dams.
The 2000 Federal Salmon Plan, issued in December 2000, promised to save salmon through habitat restoration, improved harvest practices and increasing programs to transport juvenile salmon in barges and trucks around the dams in an effort to avoid dam removal. To date, federal agencies have implemented fewer than 25 percent of the measures outlined in the plan.

In August, the General Accounting Office issued a report estimating that federal agencies have spent $3.3 billion on salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River basin, while noting that these fish remain on the brink of extinction. An estimated 16 million salmon returned each year to spawn in the mid-1800s. But over the past quarter-century, salmon populations have plummeted to less than five percent of these historic numbers.

Some members of Congress have taken note of the taxpayer burden of expensive failed salmon recovery measures. In response, 74 members have co-sponsored a bipartisan bill, The Salmon Planning Act (HR 2573), which would help prepare both federal agencies and the Northwest for dam removal.


A young coho salmon (Photo courtesy Earthjustice)
"This new RAND report provides a clear road map for the Bush Administration," said Brent Blackwelder, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. "Instead of continuing to waste billions of dollars on programs that have failed, the RAND report offers a positive vision for investing taxpayers' dollars in creating new jobs and restoring wild salmon."

For more information on the Corps' Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Study, visit: