Save the Salmon This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

      The once free-flowingwaters of eastern Washington's Snake River used to writhe with such an abundanceof salmon that observers claimed they could walk across and barely wet theirfeet. Even as recently as the early '60s, more than 100,000 adult salmon trekkedup the river to the spawning grounds where they were born. Today, this number isdown to barely 3,000. Snake River coho are extinct; sockeye, chinook andsteelhead salmon are endangered. Should this trend continue, the salmon will onlysurvive a few more years.

All four of the hydroelectric dams on the LowerSnake River must be breached by removing earthen portions to save these salmon.By restoring 140 miles of natural migration, the salmon would have an 80 to 100percent probability of restoring their earlier numbers in the next 24 years, aswell as developing several economic benefits.

Originally built for theprimary purpose of supplying power, the Snake dams are not used for floodcontrol, and are only four of the Pacific Northwest's 58 hydroelectric dams. Withcareful and appropriate planning, the services supplied by the hydroelectric damscan be properly replaced in a short period of time. Both the National MarineFisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the builders andoperators of the dams) have encouraged breaching in order to recover salmon underthe Endangered Species Act. Dam removal has only become an option because allother attempts have failed.

Over the last 25 years, the federalgovernment has spent more than $3 billion in attempts to devise alternatives,including building fish ladders, hatcheries and even an extensivetruck-and-barging system designed to move young fish downstream. These concretebarriers are too formidable for salmon survival; helpless fish end up crushed byturbines or beat themselves to death trying to ascend the sides of the dam. Theybecome traumatized and easy prey after exiting trucks and barges.

Hydroelectric dams also damage the water quality, further endangeringfish. For example, when a dam releases water over its spillways, the waterbecomes supersaturated with gases from the air. These gas bubbles are absorbedinto fish tissue, killing them. Additionally, water blocked by the dams lacks itsnatural flow and movement, which forces the river to settle, much like a lake.Oxygen and heat fail to reach deeper parts, creating conditions in which salmoncannot survive. Even when passed through turbines, water conditions remainunchanged, and downstream areas become uninhabitable.

Various economicbenefits further support the importance of breaching. The cost of destructionwould be approximately $1 billion for the four dams. Comparatively, $200 milliona year is presently spent for both their operation and for barging salmon aroundthem. Within six years, the cost of breaching would already be more thanaccounted for.

Furthermore, in the late 1800s, the United States madetreaties with many Northwestern Indian tribes guaranteeing fishing rights"for all time in usual and accustomed places." While these laws haveyet to be enforced, elimination of the salmon could lead to expensivelawsuits.

The four Snake River dams provide electric power, rivertransportation and irrigation water. While these uses are helpful, they are notvital to the Pacific Northwest. All things considered, the Lower Snake River damsprovide an annual loss of $114 million to the Pacific Northwest's economy. Thepower they provide is more expensive than that of the Columbia River dams inWashington State. It costs 2.44 cents per kilowatt-hour to run these four dams,while power could be purchased from surrounding states or Canada at 1.87 centsper kilowatt-hour. Should this costly energy source be removed, electric bills inthe Pacific Northwest area would increase by one to four dollars monthly, butwould still be some of the lowest in the country.

River transportation isuseful because it is inexpensive to shippers. This heavily subsidized movement ofgoods costs only $1.23 per ton for the shipper to go from Lewiston, Idaho toKennewick, Washington. Taxpayers and electric ratepayers, however, must foot anadditional bill of $12.66 per ton through the dams to compensate for extra costs.If rail were used for shipping instead, as it was 25 years ago, the cost wouldrest at just $1.26 per ton. Only a few cents more for the shipper could cut partof the public's burden while restoring the dwindling salmon.

Finally, the13 farms that depend on water routed from the Ice Harbor Dam, including those onthe Columbia River Basin, could develop other methods to obtain this resource.Again, taxpayers and electric customers are forced to foot much of the dam'soperation costs to supply irrigation water now pumped from reservoirs behind thisdam. These two groups subsidize the farms at $11.2 million a year while the farmsproduce a combined annual net income of $1.9 million. Modest investments for newwells or pipes to pump water from the Lower Snake River would permit farming tocontinue, and all but the most marginal farmers could afford such measures whilemanaging to stay on their feet. Assuming the government is willing to step inwith targeted grants and loans (as it did ten years ago when the reduction oftimber harvests was needed to save the spotted owl), these possibilities aremanageable.

Breaching the dams provides the only reasonable solution tothis pressing situation, for salmon are not the only thing at stake in thisdecision. The United States has treaties with Native Americans to uphold,environmental and water qualities to protect, and far better economicpossibilities to explore. Furthermore, unhealthy salmon runs represent a degradedecosystem. The Snake River dams are maintained at a loss to everyone involved. Itis time for change.


"Cheap Energy vs. theEnvironment." Physics 162: Alternative Energy and Renewable Energy Sources.1999.

Coutant, Chuck and Mike Sale. "Hydropower in UnitedStates." Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 1998.

Ellingson, Kathy. HighSchool Physics Teacher. Personal Interview. 18 Oct. 2000.

Lansing, Philip."Restoring the Lower Snake River." Oregon Natural Resources Council.2000.

"Paper Says Remove Snake River Dams to Save Fish." TheOregonian 4 Apr. 2000. Electric Library. 15 Oct. 2000.

Resler."Taking a Long Look at Dams." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 30 May 2000.Electric Library. 14 Oct. 2000.

Verhovek, Sam Howe. "Governor SidesWith Salmon in Dam Flap."

The New York Times 19 Feb. 2000. ElectricLibrary. 15 Oct. 2000.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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