Commentary: ​​Inslee and Murray are targeting the wrong dams


Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray have their priorities backward when it comes to rebuilding Snake River salmon and steelhead runs. Instead of focusing on ripping out dams with fish passages and navigation locks, they should find ways to reopen traditional spawning areas up river which are blocked by dams without fish ladders.

Breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams is costly and counterproductive. Over the last 30 years, northwest electric ratepayers paid $7.6 billion to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) for fish and wildlife protection.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is installing expensive new state-of-the-art fish-friendlier generators in the Ice Harbor powerhouse. All are designed to rebuild fish runs.

Blocking migrating salmon routes to southern Idaho rivers and streams are the three Snake River dams in Hells Canyon, which is North America’s deepest river gorge (7,993 feet.) When Idaho Power Company completed its first in 1959, Brownlee Dam — the closest upstream from Lower Granite — blocked salmon and steelhead from reaching historic spawning areas as far away as Twin Falls.

Over the years, several attempts failed to reintroduce fish runs above the Hells Canyon impoundments, but now is not the time to give up trying. The priority should be to extend spawning grounds, not breach dams. 

Restoring Snake River runs is not just a lower Snake River dams’ problem nor is demolishing Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams an alternative to breaching the lower dams in Washington. All options ranging from trucking and barging fish around dams to reducing overfishing and predator takes should be on the table. 

The Pacific Fishery Management Council estimated prior to 1850, the Snake River Basin produced 1.4 million Chinook, 200,000 coho and 150,000 sockeye each year. Steelhead were estimated at 340,000. 

“The decline of the Columbia River salmon runs, including the Snake River runs, was started by over harvest in the lower Columbia from the 1860s to the early 1900s and in the lower Columbia and Pacific Ocean from the early 1900s to the 1970s,” John McKern, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, wrote in 2015. The overharvest and loss of spawning habitat due to upstream dams and human activities occurred before the lower Snake River dams were built.

In all, there are 22 hydropower dams on the Snake River’s main stem. It includes 15 in Idaho, three on the Idaho and Oregon border, and four in Washington. The Snake River produces more than 1,100 megawatts of electricity — enough for the city of Seattle — and the water withdrawals irrigate 3.8 million acres.

All those dams, not just the four on the lower Snake River in Washington, impact fish runs.

Congressman Dan Newhouse, a central Washington farmer, was blunt in his recent testimony.  

“They need to acknowledge the millions of tons of carbon these dams prevent from entering our atmosphere. They need to acknowledge our dams utilize world-class technology and engineering to support the most efficient production of carbon-free hydroelectricity while also improving fish passage to rates between 93 and 96%.”

When reading the Inslee-Murray joint statement last October, it reads like breaching the lower Snake River dams is a foregone conclusion.  While they say they’ll listen to diverse viewpoints with open minds, they seem fixed on “post breaching” strategies.

Inslee and Murray need to take the blinders off and look more widely at the path ahead. Just speeding down a narrow road where dam removal is the only option is not good for our state or region.

Wouldn’t it be wise to focus on the impacts of the Hells Canyon dams on the loss of salmon and steelhead habitat before arbitrarily deciding to just tear out the lower Snake River dams?

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at