Snake River Dams Are Staying: The Federal Decision is Now Official

The Snake River dams have been a contention point between salmon conservationists, Tribal Salmon Alliance, and people who support the dams. The four lower Snake River Dams have a long-disputed history, and the case has been dealt with by a federal judge. In 2016, the debate grabbed a lot of attention. But now, federal agencies have decided upon the plan that allows the Dams to stay in place and functional, with stipulations added for Salmon conservation.

The decision became official after four years of deliberation and study. The ROD (Record Of Decision) published in September 2020, formalized and made official the decision that was favored by the federal agencies involved. But it also called for more springtime spill over the dams. This is expected to aid and contribute to the survival of juvenile Salmon. These juveniles migrate (run) to the Pacific Ocean.

Entities Involved 

Multiple entities are involved in or impacted by this decision. Apart from the dam supporters (including local officials) and people protesting for the removal of Snake River Dams, there are several groups that have either approved or spoken against this decision. 

It’s approved by the Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and BPA. The entities that are not happy with the decision are Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance, tribal groups, Salmon advocates, and several green energy advocates. 

The dam managers and dam supporters clearly feel that Salmon conservative is not looking at the full picture. While Salmon conservative and tribal representatives believe that these Dams, and the role they play in diminishing the Salmon population in the river, are an environmental disaster and destroying the way of life of tribal people.

The Regional Director of the Bureau of Reclamation lauded the decision, effectively saying that the decision balances our environmental responsibility and the various benefits (uses) of the Columbia River system. 

However, this endorsement isn’t accepted by all entities.

Controversial River Uses

Quite a few of the uses of the Snake River (and Columbia River as a whole) clash with each other.

  • Tribal treaties and the rights/claim on the tribal people on the river Salmon (and other fish like Sturgeon, etc.)
  • Conservation of Salmon and Steelhead (both endangered)
  • Navigation and transport from West’s innermost port: Lewiston, Idaho
  • Recreational and commercial fishing
  • Irrigation water for farmers at the Snake belt
  • Renewable energy in the region (and local carbon foot-print maintenance)

The dams play an essential role in the irrigation and energy production of the area. Dam supporters argue that removing those dams could potentially destroy the way of life in the West that relies quite heavily upon the federal water infrastructure, of which these dams are a huge part of. 

And as for Salmon advocates, they are the leading cause that’s effecting Salmon population in the river, and by extension, endangering Orcas that feed on the Salmon.

The Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement (Record of Decision) considered all these issues. It took into consideration the part that 14 Columbia dams play in the Salmon’s survival or endangerment. Then it had to weigh that against the problems that would be caused by removing the lower four snake river dams, which would have included irrigation (and by extension, farming), energy short-fall, and barging. 

The commission’s concerns about the Salmon conservation motivated its decision to increase the dam spill (contributing to the Salmon conservation efforts). And there are also provisions for flexibility in the future so that the conservation efforts can be improved as science progresses.

But as the decision stands, the impact of removing the dams would have clearly been more devastating, which is why the Snake River dams are staying.

Dam Supporters vs. Protestors

Whether you are one of Columbia River fishing guides, Oregon fishing guides (more specifically, Portland Oregon fishing guides), or another concerned individual (entity), you need to understand both sides’ point of view.

The argument Dam supporters make, apart from the fact that they are imperative of life in the West, includes their importance as a source of carbon-free energy. They argue that in the current times of environmental crisis, we need carbon-free energy sources. They believe that Dams contribute to the environment by reducing carbon-footprint and making fires less intense; they help preserve natural marine habitats.

The dams also play a crucial part in local commerce and farming. Congressman Dan Newhouse of the tri-state area says that without the dams providing the water, we wouldn’t be able to produce the food and fiber for the world. 

The people on the opposite side, including Robb Krehbiel, disagree. He said that you couldn’t call something like these dams sources of “clean” energy when they have such an aggressive impact on the fish population and tribal treaty rights. He also said that thanks to technology, we have access to other clean sources of energy.

The representatives of the tribes are also staunch supporters of removing the dams. One of the tribe chiefs, Don Sampson, who is also a spokesperson of the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance, believes that the decision goes against Salmon restoration goals, impacting the livelihood and lifestyle of tribal people who depend upon the Salmon. It goes against the treaty that stated that the salmon population in the river would be abundant so that the tribes could harvest as much Salmon as they needed to support their population. 

People opposed to the dams also believed that the additional dam spill is a temporary solution, and nowhere potent enough to impact the Salmon restoration in a meaningful way. The flexible spill-agreement is supposed to balance the hydropower needs and spillage necessary to promote/conserve the Salmon population. Since spilling water doesn’t produce any electricity, less electricity would be produced if more water is spilled to encourage the fish population.

 But the problem is that the spilled water increases the amount of gas dissolved in the water. There is a provision to study this and other issues that the additional spillage can create for the Salmon population, along with the benefits it offers. 


While the federal decision has put a hold on this debate, for now, the spirit of the people running the campaign against the dams is far from dampened. They are exploring a more “local” approach and working with the governors of four states (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana). Another angle is to bring some Congress members to the cause since the Congress might have to act to remove those dams.

In any case, the debate is far from over, and the current federal decision has simply given dams and their supporters more time. It might not directly impact your future guided fishing trips in the river, but its consequences may include the future of fishing in these waters.

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