Frequently Asked Questions

What did Idaho salmon runs look like before the dams were built?

Prior to Euro-American settlement and subsequent industrialization, the Snake River Basin was one of the most productive salmon-bearing watersheds in the Lower 48 states. Accurate estimates of fish returns are hard to come by, but its likely that at least 2-6 million anadromous fish returned to Idaho every year. 40% of all Columbia River spring and summer Chinook Salmon and 55% of Summer steelhead came from the Snake River and tributaries. Even as recently as the 1950s, salmon returns were so numerous that some of the first river runners on the Middle Fork of the Salmon would tell stories of pushing their oars through schools of fish as they tried to row downriver. The town of McCall, Idaho even had two salmon canneries to take advantage of the sockeye runs up to Payette Lake. 

As numerous as salmon and steelhead were, they were wide-ranging as well. Historically, salmon and steelhead spawned in rivers across the Snake River Basin like the Owyhee, the Bruneau, the Payette, the Weiser, and the Boise. Some fish were known to swim as far into Idaho as present-day Twin Falls, where Shoshone Falls presented an impassable barrier. Today, 62% of that historic spawning habitat remains, as dam construction up and down the Snake and its tributaries cut off access completely. 

How do we know the Lower Snake Dams are really the problem?

Dams kill salmon and steelhead in several ways: they slow the travel time for out-migrating juveniles, churn fish up in their turbines, create advantageous conditions for invasive and native predators, increase water temperatures to dangerous levels, and interrupt the timing of the freshwater-saltwater transition for the young fish on their way to the ocean.

Decades of science and research from federal, state, tribal, and independent studies have shown that the Lower Snake Dams are the primary factor in the decline of Snake River salmon and steelhead. A 2022 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that "For Snake River stocks, the centerpiece action is restoring the lower Snake River via dam breaching." The American Fisheries Society, the leading independent fishery research organization, proclaimed in 2023 that "[i]f Snake River basin salmon and steelhead are to be saved, then policymakers and stakeholders at all levels will need to implement appropriate processes and funding provisions to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake River, as well as implement all necessary habitat rehabilitation". 

By looking at salmon and steelhead returns for the Columbia Basin below the confluence with the Snake, we can estimate the effect that the Lower Snake Dams have on fish populations in the Snake River Basin. The John Day, Deschutes, and Yakima Rivers all have anadromous fish that must travel through at least some of dams on the Columbia River, are subject to similar harvest, predation, and water quality as Snake River fish. John Day Chinook salmon, for example, only travel through three dams on their migrations to and from the ocean, and their numbers are consistently strong enough to sustain, and even grow their numbers. In contrast, Snake River Chinook salmon must swim through eight dams during their migrations, and they struggle to meet the minimum returns required to sustain their populations.

We know that dams are the problem, and it's time to do something about it. 

I support salmon and steelhead restoration, but my community relies on dams. How do I know that dam removal on the Lower Snake won't lead to more dam removals elsewhere?

This is a common concern, especially from people that live in the arid Intermountain West. IOGA is not fundamentally opposed to dams, and we understand that in many cases they are essential to storing water and protecting communities from spring floods. The Lower Snake River Dams are run-of-the-river dams, meaning they provide no water storage or flood control. Their utility is replaceable, their effects on migrating salmon are devastating to river communities in Idaho, and ultimately they are simply pieces of infrastructure that are rapidly becoming obsolete. It is also important to note that Congressman Simpson's Columbia Basin Initiative, the most comprehensive dam removal plan in the conversation, includes a litigation moratorium for the Columbia River Hydrosystem and relicensing for many other dams in the region. This will prevent a domino effect of dam removal. 

We also want to point out an overlooked way that dam removal on the Lower Snake could be helpful to irrigators and farmers on the Snake River Plain. Under the 2004 Nez Perce Agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation contracts up to 487,000 acre-feet of water (over 158 billion gallons) every year to augment river flows for migrating salmon and steelhead in Hells Canyon and the Lower Snake River. This water is essential to improving survival and recovering anadromous fish runs. However, in a future in which the Lower Snake Dams have been removed and salmon and steelhead runs recovered to healthy and harvestable levels, it is possible that the 2004 agreement could be renegotiated, and the amount of flow augmentation reduced or even eliminated. 

Some recent years have seen strong salmon and steelhead returns. Do we really need to take action to restore them?

This is a classic example of Shifting Baseline Syndrome. As a resource declines, so does our perception of "normal". We then conclude that minor upward variations are a signal of improvement, rather than viewing them against the historical context of abundance. The reality is that even so-called "strong" years of return are still a fraction of the numbers of fish that used to swim back to Idaho, and a far cry from the "healthy and harvestable" goals identified by fish biologists. 

What about sea lion predation? And tribal harvest? Don't they kill a lot of salmon?

Sea lions are the natural predators of salmon and steelhead. However, they have learned to use the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia to their advantage, allowing them to consume a higher percentage of migrating salmon than they would have under natural conditions. This is often used by pro-dam lobbyists as a way to escape accountability and shift blame. In reality, sea lions consume a minor percentage of migrating adult salmon and federal, state, and tribal agencies spend lots of time and money every year trying to mitigate their impact. A 2022 study by the US Army Corps of Engineers found that sea lions were responsible for mortality levels between 0.4% for Fall Chinook, and 8.6% for Spring Steelhead.

Native American tribes in Idaho continue to exercise their reserved treaty rights to harvest native fish. Tribal harvest is conducted in a sustainable way, and tribes have poured vast resources into restoring and protecting anadromous fish and the surrounding ecosystems for decades. For an excellent look into how tribal fisheries operate, check out the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management Plan

How can we reliably operate the grid without these dams?

The Lower Snake River Dams produce on average less than 1,000 megawatts of power, or about 4% of the regions electricity on average. Much of this power is produced as a surplus in the spring and early summer, when the rivers are running high and every other dam in the region is generating at a high level. Renewables like wind and solar are being built in large numbers across the Pacific Northwest, and new generation and storage technologies are rapidly becoming more affordable, more efficient, and more reliable. A 2018 study by Energy Strategies concluded that the Lower Snake Dams could be removed and their services to the grid replaced cheaply and reliably with wind, solar, storage, and conservation resources. Since that report was release, the economic trends have intensified in favor of new renewables and against legacy generation like hydropower. 

Besides being bad for the fish, the Lower Snake Dams are far from clean. New modeling tools are revealing just how much pollution the dams produce. We've known for a long time that dams and the reservoirs they create are damaging to the climate, primarily due to their production of methane.  A new report analyzed the lifecycle emissions from the Lower Snake Dams. The bottom line? The dams produced an equivalent to 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide every year. This is equal to burning 2 billion pounds of coal, or driving 400,000 extra cars for a full year.  Despite the claims of pro-dam lobbyists to the contrary, the Lower Snake River dams are not clean sources of energy, and have been destructive to environment in many ways. 

Would dam removal really restore salmon and steelhead runs in Idaho?

Dam removal has proven to be a successful tool for river restoration on a smaller scale. On rivers like the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers in Washington, the Sandy in Oregon, and the Penobscot and Kennebec in Maine, dam removal has lead directly to better ecosystem health and the return of anadromous fish populations. 

Lower Snake restoration has the potential to be even more impactful, giving anadromous fish across Idaho an opportunity to make a comeback. Some of the best spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead left in the Lower 48 is in Central Idaho. If we give these resilient, powerful fish a chance, they will make the best of it. If we don't, it's unlikely that wild populations will be around in 50 years. 

What about the recreation businesses like the cruise boats, that rely on the Lower Snake reservoirs?

Without the reservoirs created by the Lower Snake River Dams, many of the cruise boats that travel up the Snake River to Lewiston would not be able to operate. However, the economic impact to the region would be minimal. The value of the cruise boat industry is minimal, estimated in 2020 at about $4 million. To put that number in context, the closure of the Clearwater steelhead fishing season in 2019 cost Idaho over $34 million. That's one fishing season on one specific river compared to the impact of an entire business between two states. Additionally, restoring 140 miles of free flowing river would open up a windfall of new guiding and outfitting opportunities on the Lower Snake, creating a new source of economic output for the region.  

Why is the Biden Administration developing plans to remove the Lower Snake Dams in secret?

The Biden Administration recently announced a series of commitments to make restore healthy and abundant native fish populations, build out renewable energy, and plan to improve transportation infrastructure in the Snake and Columbia River Basins. These commitments were part of an agreement between the federal government and the Six Sovereigns (Oregon, Washington, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama Tribes) to stop ongoing litigation over salmon and dams and instead work together to find solutions for all. The agreement was developed behind closed doors because it was done through the Federal Mediation and Concilliation Service, a process that keeps negotiations private. The State of Idaho was not part of the lawsuit on either side, and therefore was not privy to any agreements until they were made public in December of 2023. 

Why is Congressman Mike Simpson developing plans to remove the Lower Snake Dams in secret?

Congressman Simpson's Columbia Basin Initiative was developed over several years and was the result of meetings with stakeholders from across the Snake River Basin: farmers, electric utilities, anglers, tribes, outfitters, shipping companies, etc. The Initiative is designed to bring people together and find better solutions for all. It provides funding to remove Lower Snake Dams and restore Idaho salmon and steelhead, but also creates programs to replace the services of the dams and attempts to make whole all parties in the process.