Last Chance to Save the Salmon
Credit: Photograph by Kevin Gray

Riggins, Idaho, population 410, is a scenic town, hugging a turn in the Salmon River. The river, locals say, was once so full of Chinook salmon that people joked you could cross it on their backs. During spawning season, "they made such a racket that you couldn't sleep at night," says Rexann Zimmerman, the 59-year-old owner of the Hook, Line, and Sinker tackle and liquor store. "Now they're something rare and precious."

The Columbia River Basin, encompassing parts of Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, was once home to more Chinook salmon than any other place in the world, with numbers ranging from 8 million to 15 million fish a year. Today the Basin population is around 2 million. While overfishing and habitat destruction are partly to blame, the most significant threat, by far, to the salmon in the Pacific Northwest is the region's government-built hydroelectric dams, which choke the passage of juvenile fish on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Turbines, over-the-dam plunges, and the stress placed on salmon as they navigate hundreds of miles of slack water have resulted in the loss of approximately half of each year's outbound population, not to mention millions of dollars in revenue from a once-thriving sport- and commercial-fishing industry in small towns like Riggins.

Conservationists and the government both recognize the damage the dams have done to the salmon population but are at odds over what should be done about it. Last August a U.S. district judge in Portland ruled – for the third time in a decade – that government efforts to restore the salmon population through mitigation programs like hatcheries were not only insufficient but also in violation of the Environmental Species Act (ESA). But it was a hollow victory. While the federal government must come up with new repopulation projects to run through 2018, it once again sidestepped what conservationists call the only viable solution: dam removal.

Dam construction in the basin dates to the 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers began erecting them to exploit the hydroelectric capacity of the area's rivers. There are currently more than 400 dams throughout the region, lighting the homes of local residents, powering regional utilities and industries, and creating navigable shipping waterways that eliminate hundreds of miles of slow and expensive overland travel for U.S. goods en route to the Pacific.

On the Lower Snake River – the Columbia River's largest tributary – four dams in particular, built between 1961 and 1975, have had a devastating effect on the salmon population. They block the path to 2.4 million acres of pristine spawning grounds in a wilderness preserve in central Idaho. Largely because of those dams, the federal government had to put the Snake River's sockeye salmon on the endangered species list in 1991. Since then, 12 more runs of salmon in the Basin have been recognized as endangered or near extinction.

Conservationists have fought to prevent the loss of this keystone species, which brings ocean nutrients hundreds of miles inland, feeding plants, insects, animals, forests, and, yes, human beings. "When salmon decline, rivers and lakes become sterile, and that's what's happening in Idaho," says Bert Bowler, a former Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist. "You can cut trees and replant them. But once these fish are gone, they're gone."

Advocates like Bowler, as well as the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, have called for the removal of the four dams on the Snake. "The government is trying hard to convince people that the dams are not a problem," says Tom Stuart, a longtime fisherman and salmon-recovery activist with Idaho Rivers United. "Of course, common sense and the best available science tell us it's a huge problem."

"The largest swath of wild country in the Lower 48 is supposed to be teeming with wild salmon," says Steven Hawley, a professional river guide and the author of 'Recovering a Lost River'. "But it isn't. The culprit is these gargantuan dams."