Snake and Columbia River Dams

Why breaching would do more harm than good

BACKGROUND: The push for dam breaching

Since their completion between 1962 and 1975, the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington have been controversial and the target of tribes, environmentalists and some fishing groups. These include: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. Without any scientifically proven evidence, dam opponents have said breaching these structures would increase salmon populations throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The Northwest Energy Coalition had funded and released a controversial study in April of 2018 that purported to show the feasibility of lower Snake River dams’ replacement with wind, solar, energy efficiency, demand-response programs and storage.  When, later in the summer, the death of a baby orca and its grief-stricken mother in the Salish Sea became a weeks-long featured local news story, advocates of dam breaching changed their narrative about the primary reason for dam breaching from restoring salmon to saving the whales. Within that same time frame, three orcas were discovered dead. It was announced that only 73 southern orcas remain, and that lack of available, adequate food is one of the three main threats to their survival, in addition to pollution and noise.

In the fall of 2018, the Governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force said a stakeholder process was needed to investigate the impacts of removing or breaching the lower Snake River dams to provide more salmon for Southern Resident orcas to eat.

During the 2019 session, Gov. Jay Inslee advocated for and received $750,000 in the 2019-21 operating budget to pay for a study that would look at the benefits and impacts of breaching the dams.

The governor’s study is contracted through a “neutral third party.” No public comment will be taken at hearings being held in January in Clarkston and Vancouver, and another one in the Tri-Cities scheduled only after the governor received backlash that he was ignoring an area that would be severely impacted by dam breaching.

Gov. Inslee’s team has also pointed out his study will be released just as an environmental impact statement (EIS) is being prepared by federal agencies under order of the U.S. District Court in Oregon, which could impact future licensing of the dams.

In October, the Yakama and Lummi tribal nations joined forces to call for removal of the Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River as a method to increase salmon populations.

Why are the Snake/Columbia River dams important?

Snake River ports are critical economic drivers for their local communities and for the nation. Many modes of transportation come together at Northwest ports to provide efficient and safe movement of both commercial cargo and people. Each Snake River dam has a navigational lock that allows inland farmers access to international markets. In just nine months in 2017, more than 3.5 million tons of cargo were barged on the Snake River.

The Snake River is particularly important to our Northwest wheat farmers. Each year, the Snake River dams make it possible for nearly 40 percent of all U.S. wheat exports to move in the most fuel-efficient, safest, lowest emission type of cargo transportation — barging.

Port of Whitman County Commissioner Tom Kammerzell added removal of the dams would severely impact farmers in Eastern Washington. He noted replacement of barges with trucks to transport grain would require an additional 135,000 semi-trucks on Washington’s highways annually or more than 35,000 rail cars. These cars and trains would add tons of additional carbon to Northwest skies.

“For farming, it would impact us by doubling the costs of transportation. It would triple the cost of using fossil fuels, increase emissions, and affect jobs and the economy of Eastern Washington as much as 150 miles away from both sides of the river,” said Kammerzell. “These dams represent commerce, navigation, real people, real lives and jobs. It’s not just a simple answer to a complex problem.”

Barge loading wheat along Snake River


  • Deepest inland navigational system on the West Coast – 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Port of Lewiston, Idaho.
  • More than 52 million tons of international trade in 2017.
  • More than 8 million tons of commercial cargo in 2017.
  • At least $21 billion in cargo value.
  • Nearly 10 percent of all U.S. wheat is exported through the Columbia Snake River System. Eleven states transport through our rivers, which moved more than 14 million metric tons of wheat in 2017.
  • More than 18,000 cruise passengers in 2017, with $15 million in direct economic benefits to the region.
  • More than 40,000 local jobs are dependent on this trade.
  • Barging is the safest method of moving cargo, with a lower number of injuries, fatalities and spill rates than both rail and trucks. It is also the most fuel efficient and has the lowest emissions.


Nearly 60 percent of the energy produced in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana is generated by hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The majority (90 percent) of the Northwest’s renewable energy comes from hydropower dams, which generate carbon-free electricity without releasing measurable amounts of methane.

The Snake River dams are part of a Northwest energy solution, producing between 1,700 to 2,000 megawatts of sustained peaking capability (ability to ramp up to meet peak demand) energy — enough for more than 1.3 million homes.

Wind and solar power, as suggested by dam breach supporters, cannot replace the always-available hydropower produced by the dams. That’s because wind and solar are intermittent. As wind changes, so must it be complemented with other generation sources that can increase when the wind wanes or decrease when it blows harder.

Hydropower is an exceptionally flexible source of base generation (continual flow of electricity). Dam operators can start, stop or increase generation by hundreds of megawatts in seconds to minutes if enough water is available. This quick response time is important, because demands for electrical generation can happen in the blink of an eye — especially in winter months.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is the region’s largest supplier of energy. The electricity from the Federal Columbia River Power System is sold at-cost by the BPA to Northwest utilities. This results in a huge competitive advantage for business and affordability for ratepayers throughout the region.  After tribes called for removal of Columbia River dams, The Seattle Times said: “While calls for removal of the four dams on the Lower Snake River have been heard for decades, the demand to knock out some of the region’s larger main-stem dams is a first. How such a removal would even proceed, and what it would mean for energy or salmon recovery, has never been analyzed.”

QUICK FACTS: Snake River power generation

  • The Snake River dams produce between 1,700 to 2,000 megawatts of sustained peaking capability (ability to ramp up to meet peak demand) energy — enough for more than 1.3 million homes.
  • BPA markets power from 31 federal dams, but only the 10 largest of these dams keep the federal power system operating smoothly through the use of automatic generation control. The Snake River dams are key components and keep the power and transmission systems in balance.
  • To replace the winter energy capability of the Snake River dams with solar energy would take thousands of megawatts of installed solar panels at a utility scale and would be extraordinarily expensive for consumers. (A 579-megawatt solar farm in California that serves 213,000 homes requires 3,200 acres of ground to site 1.7 million solar panels.)
  • It would cost as much as $2.6 billion to breach the dams, but the impact to the economy and loss of power generation would be considerably more.


In 1943, Congress created the Columbia Basin Project in central Washington, the largest irrigation project to divert water from the mainstem Columbia River.  The project is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Interior Department.  Today, about 5.1 million acres are irrigated with water from the Columbia River and its tributaries. This is a reduction from the historic high, which was 9.2 million acres in 1980.

The largest areas of irrigated acreage are in southern Idaho, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. Nearly all the potatoes, sugar beets, hops, fruit, vegetables, and mint grown in the Columbia River Basin are irrigated, as are large crops of hay and grain. Water withdrawals for irrigation take water away from hydropower production. Irrigation is the largest non-hydropower use of water in the Columbia River Basin.1


Water-based recreation is an important economic activity on the Columbia River, where recreation is a specifically authorized purpose of several of the dams. Recreational use and development are authorized at all of the federal dams under federal legislation such as the Federal Water Projects Recreation Act of 1965 and the Flood Control Act of 1944.

Fishing and boating are the most popular forms of water-based recreation on the Columbia, but windsurfing, particularly in the perpetually windy Columbia River Gorge, is rapidly growing in popularity and economic importance to Gorge communities.2

How are the fish doing?

A false narrative is being spread in Olympia, Washington, D.C. and throughout the Pacific Northwest that starving Puget Sound Southern Resident orcas would be magically saved by removing the Snake River and Columbia River dams.

‘No salmon recovery effort on a single river will bring about recovery of southern resident killer whales…’

Not a shred of scientific data exists that provides solid proof that salmon stock would increase if the dams were breached.

According to Laurie Weitkamp of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, downward trends for many salmon populations are largely due to unfavorably warm ocean conditions, and not due to a single river. Her report says, “No salmon recovery effort on a single river will bring about recovery of southern resident killer whales on its own.” She notes that orcas consume a diversity of stocks throughout the year, not exclusive to Columbia stocks.


  • Southern Resident orcas spend most of their time in the coastal inland waters of the Salish Sea. As a result, a NOAA Fisheries analysis showed that Chinook from the rivers that feed into Salish Sea—not the Columbia or Snake rivers which drain directly into the Pacific Ocean—are the top priority salmon stock for Southern Resident orcas.
  • Huge investments in large-scale structures and operational changes have improved existing fish passage routes, as well as provided new, safe passage structures at these dams. These investments have resulted in a 25-year sustained increase in salmon populations.
  • Of the 13 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act, only four migrate through the lower Snake River dams. Survival through these dams for young salmon heading downstream to the ocean is 97 percent.
  • Since 2000, salmon and steelhead populations have been improving due to a combination of ocean conditions, better fish passage survival at the dams, improvements in freshwater habitat, harvest reforms, and predator control. However, warm ocean conditions coupled with high predator populations (growing numbers of seals and sea lions which feed on the fish) reduced the survival of juvenile and adult fish in the ocean.  As a result, projected 2019 adult salmon and steelhead returns are below recent 10-year averages.
  • In two studies, NOAA concluded dam removal would not help Snake River salmon or orca recovery. It says hatchery production of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake systems would more than offset any losses of salmon from the killer whale prey base caused by the dams


A four-year federal study is underway that involves all four Northwest states and 13 Northwest tribes and follows the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate 14 dams in the system, including the four Snake River dams.

These federal agencies have held 16 public meetings and two webinars to hear from residents and non-profit/for-profit groups across the region about dam operations, benefits and impacts.

The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) is scheduled to be publicly available in February 2020 and a final EIS completed in June 2020. According to Pacific Northwest Waterways Association Executive Director Kristin Meira, “We are nearing the end of a tremendously thorough science-based effort to work toward salmon recovery in the Columbia Snake River System. Federal agencies are already studying the river system, and that includes breaching Snake River dams. With findings expected in early 2020, it is prudent for all of us to keep our eyes on the prize — scientific-based salmon recovery — and not get distracted with advocacy reports that have the appearance of, but not the facts of, science.”

Bonneville Dam on Columbia River


  • These are federal dams. Accountability rests with the federal legislative delegations in the region. Action to breach these dams would likely have to go through Congress, unless of course, opponents could find a federal judge sympathetic to their cause.
  • The 1980 Northwest Power Act defines the balance of the public interests in an affordable, reliable electricity supply, the navigation and recreation interests on the river, flood risk mitigation, irrigation, and the impacts of hydropower on fish.
  • If there is to be a re-balancing, the place to start is with the federal Northwest Power Act. Since 1980, Northwest ratepayers have funded $17 billion in habitat and wildlife programs to ensure that the region’s hydropower is delivered in an environmentally sensitive manner. If the results aren’t there, federal lawmakers should make reforms. Instead, we see litigants defining the future of the region in federal courts before unelected judges—for example in the multi-year Endangered Species Act (ESA) litigation over how the federal Columbia river system impacts ESA-listed salmon.
  • We need to ensure cost-effective, science-based policy approaches to the region’s largest wildlife recovery effort – and not succumb to the notion that breaching Snake and Columbia river dams would provide the answer to saving orcas.
  • As Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, noted: “What if the dams are removed and they are wrong? What if not one orca is saved from the dam removal, not one additional salmon is spared? And now, the dams, their generating electricity, their capacity to allow billions of dollars of navigable trade, vanish — and they are wrong? What a detriment to our state, to our families, our economy, our electrical grid! What a sad waste!”
Inside the Ice Harbor Dam navigational lock — Snake River
  1.   General Information on Columbia River Basin irrigation. Northwest Power and Conservation Council,
  2.   General Information on Columbia River system recreation. Northwest Power and Conservation Council,