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Open Letter to Representatives, Present and near Future

by Alison Longley, PhD Biology, University of Oregon

This matter is urgent. The time for action is NOW. Not even a year from now, but NOW.

The matter I speak of is the imminent extinction of salmon from the Snake River and the orca that depend on the salmon, and irreparable loss to fishermen and to the tribes whose very existence rests on their relationship with this vital part of our northwest heritage.

The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Services report of September 30, 2022 makes it clear that breaching the lower Snake River dams is essential to recovering the once abundant salmon runs.

A great deal has been said about breaching or completely retaining the Lower Snake River (LSR) dams. A great deal of what has been said is misinformation. Some of you have even claimed we must keep the dams to avert flooding downriver. But these are “run-of-river” dams- they were never built for, and do not do, flood control.

The arguments that the LSR dams must be kept for their benefits are rooted in ignorance. The benefits cited include electricity, irrigation, and crop transport.

Most of the electricity from the 4 LSR dams is produced in the spring in excess of local needs and sold to California. Irrigation above the Ice Harbor dam (the only one irrigating farmland) can continue with modified infrastructure. Trains can replace barge transport; in fact, they are already doing so. Barge transport has been declining steadily since 2000. A thorough discussion of trains as a crop transport option is at General information is at, especially the Waddell amicus brief.

Although hydropower has been touted as “green”, the slackwater reservoirs behind these dams not only impair fish migration with their slow, solar heated current, the reservoirs actually emit significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. With fewer salmon to fertilize forests, the trees sequester less carbon. Fish-killing dams are not “green”, and maintenance of the dams and locks currently costs far more than they are worth.

Since the dams do not produce a net benefit, their owner/builder, the Army Corps of Engineers, is already authorized to “mothball”, i.e. breach, the dams. In fact, it is their responsibility to do so. No action by Congress is required- except, perhaps, for a push. Breaching simply means removing the earthen fill at the side of the concrete dams. Knowing that nothing lasts forever, plans to eventually do this were made even before the dams were built, and the process is relatively simple. It should begin this December. It should not wait for mitigation studies. The benefits will be huge.

Yes, it is politically risky to support breaching the dams this year. But it is politically risky to allow the extinction of our salmon and orca, especially as your constituents become aware of this possibility. You can reduce the risk by recognizing and pointing out these clear truths:

Salmon from the Snake River face extinction unless we prevent it by recreating a free-flowing river. Increased numbers and sizes of salmon will allow recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, whose main food source is salmon.

The good news is, we already know how to quickly replace the services the dams have provided: trains can replace the barging of crops, irrigation can be maintained using the same water from the same river with longer pipes and deeper wells, and the electricity generated by the dams has already been replaced by solar and wind power. Breaching the dams will save taxpayers money otherwise spent on maintaining the aging dams and locks. The money needed to breach the dams has already been set aside.

By making sure these facts are known, by quickly taking the actions needed to save the river and the life dependent on it, and by living up to our promises to the tribes, you can create a legacy of restored abundance, and you will be remembered as heroes for your part in averting this potential disaster.

“…lower Snake River restoration… is the single biggest and most effective step we can take to restore the ESA-listed Snake River salmonids and the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales.” Dr. Deborah Giles, 2021

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