Remove the Snake River Dams!

By Audrey Huff

Prior to the colonization of the Americas, the Snake River was one of the most prolific salmon habitats in the world, harboring nearly 20 million salmon each year. Today, after the building of the dams in the 1960s, the salmon population has fallen to fewer than 10,000 per year. Chinook salmon are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, their population declining by 90 percent after the construction of the dams. But it’s not just about the fish. In 1855, the American government signed a treaty with the Nez Perce nation, granting them exclusive fishing rights on the river. 15 dams have been constructed on the Snake River, with no consultation with the Nez Perce people. Gary Dorr, a tribal chairman has said “The dams destroy our way of life. The fight against the dams is a fight for our fishing rights and sovereignty....That’s an infringement of our treaty terms, and an obstruction to our way of life and rights.” Arguments that the dams provide valuable hydropower to the northwest are becoming irrelevant as renewable energy becomes cheaper and more prevalent. The cost of maintaining the dams and the energy they provide is quickly surpassing its use, and, according to Washington economist Anthony Jones, “there is good justification for taking the dams down purely on a cost savings basis.” Experts say that the portion of energy the dams generate can easily be replaced by other methods. Finally, a study conducted in 2017 by the nonpartisan Fish Passage Center found that the removal of only four dams would help to double or triple the current salmon population. However, in September 2020, Boneville Power, which operates many of the dams, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to keep the dams in place, despite a federal judge ordering that dam administrators should consider removing and/or altering the dams due to the impact they have had on the salmon population. The plan set forward by the government has been criticized by Walla Walla chief Don Sampson. Issuing a statement for the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance, he said “[The plan] doesn’t even come close to meeting salmon restoration goals of states in the Northwest and the communities that depend on those salmon. It’s far, far [from] meeting the treaty obligations of the United States to tribes that signed treaties and subsequently transferred millions of acres of land to the United States, with a requirement that salmon populations be abundant and harvestable.” But this is not the end of the fight. The removal of the Snake River dams is an Indigenous justice issue, it is an environmental justice issue, and it is an economic justice issue. The dams are a monument to hundreds of years of treaty violations, and of a system that doesn’t care what happens to Native people or their cultures. If scientists, economists, and Indigenous leaders agree the dams should be taken down, we should listen.