Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More

Free the Snake: Restoring America’s Greatest Salmon River


Free the Snake
Restoring America’s Greatest Salmon River “If you are against a dam, you are for a river” If you think about the way a river works in a landscape, it essentially functions as the circulatory system. It drains the waste products off of the land. And that sediment builds habitat in rivers and then once it gets to the coast it builds beaches, it creates the offshore environments. That flow of material is incredibly important ecologically. And building dams disrupts that. But there is another aspect to rivers, flowing back upstream that most people don’t usually think about. And in the Northwest that’s greatly mediated by salmon. Because when salmon leave their native streams they’re small. When they come back a couple of years later, they are huge. They put on 90% – 95% of their body mass in the marine environment. That means that for a large fish run, the kind of fish runs we had historically in the Northwest, you can think of as a nitrogen pump that’s scavenging food out of the oceans and bringing it back on land. It feeds the bugs, the trees in the forest, they feed the eagles, they feed the bears, essentially fertilizing their own world. Anything that blocks a river, like a dam does, limits their access to a part of the world that they need to complete their life cycle. The four dams in the Snake River, in the upper reaches of the Columbia basin, are excessive. And I believe they are largely responsible for the destruction of salmon runs that extended all the way up into the Rocky Mountains of Idaho. The Snake River basin holds today the largest remaining pristine salmon habitat left in the lower 48 states. We are talking over 5,000 miles of stream habitat in central Idaho alone. If we took out the four lower Snake River dams, salmon and steelhead would have access back into all those areas. There should not be four dams on the lower Snake River, choking out the most important wildest salmon refuge left. 5,500 miles of high-elevation streams, more resistance to global warming than any other watershed. If the salmon runs were restored, that would be the starting point for this unbelievable wilderness nexus that is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Dams change the habitat. When you disturb the habitat, it can be bad for the native fishes and good for non-native fishes. The river is no longer a river, it’s a lake. And the lakes are full of predators that like to eat the salmon smolt. The Pacific Northwest right now, according to “The Oregonian” newspaper, spends a billion dollars a year on salmon recovery. And they are not getting very much for it. There are study after study now, that are showing that hatcheries on the river reduce the survival of the wild fish. The primary purpose for these dams always was transportation. It was to make Lewiston, Idaho a seaport. The only reason — it’s barely cheaper to send wheat down the river rather than putting it on the railroad which runs right along the river — is because of the subsidies. Given the fiscal condition of this country, the budget issues, now is the time simply to remove that subsidy. And the wheat growers will do very well on the railroad. A dam is a means to an end, but we’ve got it backwards now. We look at them as end-states: they are built, they are there, they’ll stay there forever. Their intent was to increase the economic output of a region in the country. When they stop doing that, they are no longer viable. The work we’ve done on the economics shows that if you keep the dams, the national economy loses at least 150 million dollars a year. These four dams are very expensive to operate. As soon as they diverge from that end-state, it’s time to re-think. We need another tool, like wind energy or solar panels. The dam is a means, not an end. The beautiful thing about salmon is that if you look at their history, they are incredibly resilient. If we give them half a chance, they can come back. When you remove the dam, and the river becomes a river again. The complexity begins to reappear. There is the ripple effect of restoration, that moves all the way through the river basin, all the way upstream. The removal of lower Snake River dams is one of the big jewels embedded in the Holy Grail of salmon recovery. It would be the biggest watershed restoration in North America, maybe on Earth, if we did this. The largest possible salmon recovery that humanity could achieve, would be simply to remove those four dams. Free the Snake. Sign the petition.

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