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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited to reflect that steelhead are a species of trout, not salmon.
Currently, the lower Snake River is home to four dams. The dams provide Washington and Whitman County with a slew of benefits including energy-efficient transportation, commercial recreation, irrigation water and electricity. While these benefits are enticing to many residents of Whitman County, they don’t tell the full story.
With the construction of these dams on such a large scale, numerous environmental and economic problems have developed, including effects on the surrounding communities due to the decline in steelhead, a type of rainbow trout. Several environmental groups and Native American tribes are now calling to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River.
“You can’t help but hurt fish populations with any dam,” said Allyson Beall King, associate clinical professor who specializes in water resources and environmental assessment. “You can’t fully mitigate the interruption that the dam has created.”
This situation regarding the four dams is complicated, but having overzealous and unmoving opinions on whether we should tear down the Snake River dams won’t solve the problem and doesn’t reveal the whole truth.
The Snake River flows from the western edge of Wyoming to Hells Canyon and is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most important tributaries to the Columbia River. Many populations thrive because of the river, including the Chinook, Sockeye and steelhead that swim upstream for breeding.
Various native tribes have fished the Snake River for thousands of years. The river has been dammed on an enormous scale since the construction of Swan Dam in 1901.
The dams pose significant problems for Washington. One example is the decline of steelhead. Steelhead have faced problems as a species and are now listed as endangered. The cause of the decline in steelhead is complicated, but the construction of dams is a leading factor.
The decline of the steelhead isn’t just an environmental problem though, it is also an economic problem as well.
In 2017, due to the low steelhead population, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission had to close its steelhead fishing season.
“Their decision hurt riverside towns … it is unfair to punish rural communities that depend on fishery-based economies,” according to the Idaho Rivers United website.
Towns in Idaho are often dependent on tourism revenue that comes from people wanting to fish for steelhead and having this source of revenue disappear could devastate the future economy of many of these towns.
Another economic impact caused by the lack of steelhead is the decline of the Puget Sound fishing industry. As many as 25,000 fishing jobs have been lost as a direct result of the Snake River dams, according to the non-profit coalition Save Our Wild Salmon. This level of economic and environmental decline must be considered a negative consequence of the dams.
That said, removing the dams also poses environmental risks. Significant amounts of sediment have built up on the upriver side of the dams. It would need to be removed for the river to revert to its original source.
Removing this sediment is difficult. If it were to just be allowed to flow downstream, all the toxins in the sediment would wash down the Snake and into the Columbia, causing their own adverse side effects.
If the sediment were to be relocated, the carbon emissions generated from the transport would be immense, and the sediment would end up elsewhere, and likely just leach back into the water supply.
Removing dams is an immensely complex process, and while removal may have positive environmental and economic impacts, it would also likely have adverse consequences that are difficult to predict.
The Snake river dam obviously has downsides, but it also has many benefits as well.
“Residents of Whitman county and the producers and the farmers of this area benefit enormously because it is an avenue for effective and efficient transport for the product that they produce,” said Eric Jessup, research professor and director of the Freight Policy Transport Institute. “They would lose a very cheap way to transport their product to the market. It would lead to higher input costs and higher transportation costs.”
Whitman County leads the nation in wheat production and exports most of its grain overseas. This would mean that Whitman county wheat would be less attractive to overseas markets, potentially damaging this region’s economy.
The water from the Snake river is also crucial to irrigation, an integral part of Washington’s agricultural economy. Over 60 percent of the county’s energy comes from hydroelectricity, and the Snake River dam contributes to that figure, according to the Snakes River Dams website.
Many parts of the dam serve as tourist destinations, as the high water levels can be used for recreational boat use and kayaking. These dams do good things.
This issue is complicated and personal. It affects almost everyone, from taxpayers to farmers to fishermen.
When you take a position on the dam, try to account for all of positives and negatives that your position entails. Try to have respect for one another’s diverse perspectives that may lead to different positions.