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Rethinking the Lower Snake River

A free-flowing Snake River can work for all.

 We in the Northwest have an opportunity. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Residents can maintain the clean, abundant power we all rely on and save iconic salmon and orcas if we rethink how we manage the lower Snake River system. To do that, we’re going to need to imagine a different, more prosperous future for the communities that rely on the lower Snake River system. Let’s consider how farmers, sport-fishers, Tribes, business owners, and families—across Idaho, Washington, and Oregon—can see themselves in this future.

We need to consider the many benefits that a free-flowing Snake River offers us all. Working together, we can both create new jobs, more diverse and robust economic activity, and stronger, more resilient communities up and down the river and throughout the watershed. Solutions to prevent wild salmon for extinction requires that we work closely with impacted communities, rebuild local economies, and accelerate the production of new, clean power.

two salmon in waterWe have three guiding principles:

  • Extinction is simply not acceptable — for Southern Resident orcas or the wild Snake River salmon they need to thrive.
  • We need to come together as a region to find solutions to make the Snake River work for all.
  • There is an urgent need to act now. We must engage with and urge our elected leaders to step up and take action. 


In reconsidering how we manage the Lower Snake River, there are a number of key areas where we can learn from each other’s challenges and find smarter solutions.


The economic and cultural importance of agriculture relating to the lower Snake River dams cannot be understated, however we cannot ignore the economic and cultural value of salmon and fisheries as well. If we don’t restore the Snake River, the science and trends are clear: we could lose these fish forever. We need to find solutions to create vibrant farming AND fishing communities. How do we achieve both? Done responsibly, river restoration could deliver big benefits to local communities and move everyone forward together. This is the conversation we need to be having.


Barging provides benefits only to some farmers. However, feasible and affordable alternatives to barging on the lower Snake River also exist: rail and road. Smart planning for off-river transportation options can ensure farmers continue to be able to deliver their products to market. Creating policies or subsidies to ensure that transportation remains reliable and affordable is an option we can all support. We need investments to maintain affordable and reliable transportation for farmers today who ship on the lower Snake River.


If we retain the lower Snake River dams, we will lose Snake River salmon and the Southern Resident orcas that rely on them, and forego one of the nation’s great river restoration opportunities. Alternatively, we can decide to restore the river, which will require a robust plan to ensure our energy supply remains affordable and reliable, and this includes clean and renewable energy and expanded storage. With investments, we represent economic development and job creation opportunities, especially for Inland Northwest communities, if we work together and plan well.

Salmon and Steelhead

The available science is clear: restoring this river is critical to protecting the Snake River salmon and steelhead from extinction and rebuilding the irreplaceable benefits they deliver to the people of our region and nation. Scientists predict that restoring the lower Snake River will lead to between 600,000 and one million Snake River spring Chinook. This does not count the recovery potential to the other imperiled Snake River stocks.


The dams and reservoirs have transformed a flowing river into four stagnant, warm pools without current and with increased predators. All contribute to endangering salmon and steelhead, in addition to risks from navigating dam turbines. Climate impacts make threats worse, further warming the pools for many weeks each summer. 

Hot water kills cold water fish but after a temporary disruption to the river, a restored, resilient, free-flowing river delivers huge survival benefits to salmon, lamprey, sturgeon, and other fish and wildlife: natural current, cooler waters, fewer predators, no turbines, and more.


Common sense and research both point towards huge improvements in and expansion of recreation opportunities on a restored Snake River. Today, little recreation occurs on the reservoirs downstream from Clarkston/Lewiston. Flowing rivers and fishable salmon and steelhead populations are very rare. Economic research and experience in other regions demonstrates the tremendous economic value of sustainable fisheries and free flowing rivers. 


There is very strong support for restoring the lower Snake River — for the river; for salmon, steelhead, and other fish species; and for cultural and land recovery purposes. The dams have harmed the Tribes throughout the region in myriad ways, with negative cultural, economic, and wildlife impacts. Restoring the river and re-exposing inundated lands will require careful work with and by the Tribes to protect sacred sites and cultural resources.


Snake River habitat restoration creates opportunity. River restoration, with proper planning and investment by stakeholders and sovereigns, including regional policymakers, can lead to significant economic and quality-of-life benefits, with increased job opportunity, development of a restoration economy, an outdoor recreation economy, and expanded clean energy. This will not occur unless Northwest people begin working together to plan and advocate for a better future for salmon and orcas, for BPA and our fishing and farming communities.

The LSDR Stakeholder Engagement Report draft is available for public review at Comments on the draft report are accepted through Jan. 24th.

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