The Battle Over Columbia River Salmon

PCFFAOver the next several months, the West Coast has a golden opportunity to push for a serious Columbia River salmon recovery plan. This chance to finally get it right comes after decades—and more than $15 billion—spent by the federal government trying to fix a broken system, along with more than 20 years of litigation.

After decades of dam building, four final dams—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite—were built on the Snake River, the Columbia River’s largest tributary, in the 1960s and ‘70s. Before they were constructed, Washington’s Department of Fisheries warned that the Lower Snake River dams would spell trouble for salmon:

“The development would remove part of the cost of waterborne shipping from the shipper and place it on the taxpayer, jeopardizing more than one-half of the Columbia River salmon production in exchange for 148 miles of subsidized barge route. This policy of water development, the department maintains, is not in the best interest of the overall economy of the state. Salmon must be protected from the type of unilateral thinking that would harm one industry to benefit another. Loss of the Snake River fish production would be so serious that the department has consistently opposed the four-phase lower dam program that would begin with Ice Harbor dam near Pasco.” (From the State of Washington Department of Fisheries Annual Report for 1949.)

Unfortunately, that 1949 prediction came true. Once built, the four lower Snake River dams proved to be four dams too many, and the blocked Snake River salmon runs started on their slide to extinction. The relatively minor economic benefits these four dams provided were never justified, as compared to the enormous economic and social toll taken by lost fishing economies.

The Columbia River was once the largest salmon producing river system in the world. Prior to addition of the dams, the Columbia produced salmon escapements estimated at between 10 and 16 million adults annually.

Today, of course, the Columbia produces less than 2.5 million adult fish, more than 90% of hatchery origin. Wild Chinook in the river are down to less than 2% of their historic numbers, and continuing to decline. Snake River Sockeye, Snake River fall Chinook, Snake River spring/summer Chinook and now Upper Columbia steelhead are so near extinction that they are listed as federally protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Wild Coho runs, once numbering an estimated 1.2 million average annually, are now officially extinct throughout the basin except for a remnant of about 34,000 still spawning at its very mouth. And many of the 106 distinct stocks of salmon that once existed and are now considered extinct also occupied areas in the Columbia Basin now blocked by dams.

A recent study by the Institute for Fisheries Resources documented what these losses have meant to salmon fishermen. Hydropower and dam mismanagement in the Columbia has cost the region’s fishery economy as much as 25,000 family-wage jobs, and $978 million a year (in 2023 dollars) in lost economic opportunities for each and every year these declines are allowed to continue. (Statement on the Value of Columbia Basin Salmon (June 2022) at

Fishermen are engaged in an all-out war to decide the future of the Columbia’s once abundant salmon runs. Here is the shape of the current battle lines and what you can do to assist in the Columbia River salmon restoration effort that is so long overdue.

Removing the Worst Salmon Killing Dams

Wild salmon in the Columbia are forced to run a gauntlet of 27 huge dams in the Columbia and Snake River mainstems. Some were actually designed to kill fish. Hell’s Canyon, Grand Coulee, Mayfield Dam (on the Cowlitz), Round Butte Dam (on the Decshutes), Dworshak Dam (on the Clearwater tributary to the Snake) and many others were deliberately built without any fish passage, up or downstream.

These dams are the end of the line for salmon, and together they have already extinguished salmon in more than one-third of their historic range in the basin. In addition, there are hundreds of other smaller dams scattered throughout the basin, many of which are known fish killers — and only 4% of which generate any electrical power at all.

Though many of these smaller dams are obsolete, they are all significant salmon killers. While the major salmon-destroying lower Snake River dams are by far the worst offenders, almost any dam will take a “bite” out of the salmon population long before it ever sees the ocean or is available to harvest.

However, the forces defending the dams (and the current status quo) have always pointed to fishermen as “the problem.” They forever claim that it is overfishing and not dams that are the cause of widespread Columbia River salmon extinctions.

In fact, compared to the tens of millions of fish destroyed by the Columbia River dams, fishing impacts are laughably small. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officially estimates that all tribal, commercial and recreational fishing combined accounts for less than 5% of all human-caused immediate salmon mortality within the Columbia River Basin. Roughly 90% of the remaining mortality is caused by the dams, with baby salmon dying while migrating downstream through predator-infested warm, slack-water reservoirs, or as returning adults.

Thus, even a total fisheries closure throughout the Pacific would mean a less than 5% increase in Columbia fish. That’s not much of a result, at great cost, and one soon to be overwhelmed by continued losses at the dams.

What people forget, however, is that these dams were never intended to be permanent fixtures. All were designed for a specific life span. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the average operational life span of American dams at about 50 years. Many of the Columbia River dams are now nearing or have passed their intended retirement age. The facts show that the four lower Snake River dams are good candidates for retirement.

Dams are built to provide some combination of only four benefits: (1) hydropower (2) flood control (3) irrigation or drinking water, and (4) river navigation for commerce. We know the four lower Snake River federal dams kill a disproportionate number of fish. But how do they stack up in providing offsetting social benefits?

(1) Hydropower – Surprise! These four dams combined provide only about 4.13% of the region’s total hydropower supply. Their retirement would make very little difference to the Bonneville Power Administration or to electricity rates. The Northwest Power Planning Council already concluded that BPA could economically survive if these four dams were retired. And as more renewable energy comes on-line, the hydropower the Snake River dams produce is less valuable, and sometimes even becomes “surplus power”—which means BPA then has to pay others to take that extra power, at a net loss.

(2) Flood Control – Surprise again! None of these dams provide any flood-control benefits. Human safety, therefore, is simply not going to be an issue if these four dams are retired.

(3) Irrigation – Of the four, only Ice Harbor supplies any significant irrigation, for a mere 36,000 acres of land (about 7.5 square miles, an area much smaller than Portland). Modern pumps would supply this same water for a fraction of the cost of maintaining that dam.

(4) Navigation – These four dams do indeed provide a significant stretch of navigable water from Lewiston, Idaho, mostly for grain transport. But this transport is heavily subsidized by taxpayers—and if you count in those subsidies, its cost to taxpayers is actually far more than its net economic benefit.

Right now, BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers spend roughly $600 million a year on fish and wildlife mitigation measures for the Columbia and Snake River dams to make it possible to continue to barge grain on the river. Retiring some of these dams would eliminate much of this huge financial burden.

If even a fraction of this huge savings went directly to Lewiston, Idaho, it could more than compensate for any economic losses—and be a lot cheaper for taxpayers.

Transport of grain entirely by road and rail (as was done in the basin until the 1960s) to the old end of the barging system at Richland, Wash. would today only be slightly more expensive than just the current barge fees. And a lot cheaper than barging as a whole, if you calculate in all the never-ending billions in salmon mitigation and maintenance costs necessary to maintain a handful of river grain barges.

The Snake River transportation corridor is actually the most heavily subsidized transportation system in the world. The old and still intact railway system was financially a lot cheaper overall to maintain, did not kill salmon and was mostly self-financing, as compared to the four lower Snake River dams. With a few upgrades, this existing rail system could replace barging above Richland, where the old barging terminal still exists.

Lower Snake River Dam Breaching Support

Lower Snake River dam removal also has strong scientific and economic support. NOAA recently published an official report, Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead (Sept. 2022),which concluded:

“For Snake River stocks, the centerpiece action is restoring the lower Snake River via dam breaching. Restoring more normalized reach-scale hydrology and hydraulics, and thus river conditions and function in the lower Snake River, requires dam breaching.”

A parallel economic analysis commissioned by BPA (BPA Lower Snake River Dams Power Replacement Study (July 2022) also charted out economic pathways to replacing the power benefits these dams provide, which turns out not to be difficult.

And the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society (AFS), the most prestigious scientific society of fisheries managers and biologists in the region, concluded as far back as 2000 that: “a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams, and that action must happen soon,” if the river’s salmon runs are to be saved (

The best place to find the dozens of reports, studies and analyses showing that lower Snake River dam removals are not only scientifically necessary for salmon recovery, but also economically feasible, even beneficial to the regional economy, is the Save Our Wild Salmon page at PCFFA and IFR have been fishing industry members of this coalition for more than 25 years.

Knee-Jerk Resistance to Dam Removals

Ultimately, the dam-removal issue is blatantly political, not economic. Have run out of viable scientific and economic arguments for keeping the four lower Snake River dams, removal opponents instead have resorted to trying to pass laws simply making dam removal legally impossible. And that’s no matter how much damage the structures do to irreplaceable salmon runs, even deliberately causing their extinctions.

This is the tone of two recent bills introduced in Congress, H. R. 1762 (Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-Wash.), introduced April 14, and S. 966 (Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho), introduced March 23. These identical bills would prohibit even studying proposed dam modifications in any form that might “restrict hydropower” or “limit navigation” without explicit approval of Congress. They also command that federal agencies turn the clock back to only manage the Federal Columbia River Power System under the discredited, illegal and since-withdrawn rules of the prior Administration’s Biological Opinion of 2020.

In other words, the bills’ authors urge Congress (and not scientists) to legally redefine what is, and is not, “best available science,” while stripping scientists and expert agencies of the ability to build on the science and implement those improvements. The agencies would then have to micromanage these dams indefinitely under obsolete 2020 rules to maintain a failing status quo.  That, again, would lead only to widespread salmon extinctions.

PCFFA and IFR have written recently about the dam-removal debate (see the May 2022 Fishermen’s News column Thinking Clearly About Demolishing Dams, at

Dam removals of the sort proposed for the Snake River are nothing new. Nearly 2,000 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912, according to a list maintained by American Rivers. And somehow civilization went on—but with healthier rivers and more fish to fill them.

PCFFA and IFR are among the groups (including the state of Oregon and two tribes) that have challenged the Columbia River Salmon Biological Opinion from 2020 in American Rivers, et al. vs. NMFS, et al., U.S. Dist. Court of Oregon (Portland District), Case No. 01-cv-00640. The action follows successful invalidations of five prior federal Salmon Plans that each failed to seriously address the option of dam removals. All were thrown out by the courts, with some jurists labeling the plans as “arbitrary and capricious” and “not in accordance with the best available science.”

Biden administration officials are actively negotiating with PCFFA, IFR and other plaintiffs to find alternatives to the cycle of perpetual legal battles, based on a new (and first-ever) Columbia Basin-wide, 100-year salmon restoration plan. The proposal, worked out from 2017-2019 (“the Columbia Basin Partnership”) could save failing salmon runs throughout the basin. But implementing it requires selective dam removals, as well as finding ways to provide substitute benefits to stakeholder groups that stand to lose as the removals go forward.

What You Can Do to Help Save Columbia River Salmon

The above are only some of the fights going on right now to determine the future of salmon in the Columbia Basin. PCFFA and several of its member organizations are deeply involved in efforts (not just litigation) to once again make the Columbia run like a river—instead of the series of stagnant, warm-water, industrialized lakes it has become.

In this we are following a long and glorious political tradition within our industry in fighting the installation and operation of dams that would blatantly destroy the salmon resource upon which so much of our industry is based.

 These efforts deserve your support. Without salmon production from the once-abundant Columbia, there will be no end to the fish wars with Canada, all ocean salmon fishing coastwide will continue to be severely constrained, and the regional fishing economy will continue to lose nearly a billion dollars a year.

Write your members of Congress, and the Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana governors, telling them how important restoring Columbia River salmon runs is to our industry, Urge them to do all they can to protect and restore salmon throughout the Columbia Basin. Every letter helps.

And for more information on the growing campaign to save the Columbia Basin’s once-abundant salmon runs, see the Save Our Wild Salmon website,  

Glen Spain is the Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and of its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR).   He is also the PFMC-appointed Commercial Fisheries Representative to the PFMC’s Habitat Committee. He can be reached by email at at the PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office: (541) 689-2000. PCFFA’s website is IFR’s website is