The Fight Over Columbia Basin Salmon Spills and the Future of the Lower Snake River Dams

Contributor Roles

Doug DeRoy, Wild Fish Advocate, Advocates for the West

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Washington Journal of Environmental Law and Policy

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Wash. J. Env't L. & Pol'y


One of the nation’s most longstanding environmental-energy conflicts concerns the plight of numerous Columbia Basin salmon species which must navigate the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS), a series of hydroelectric dams that make the basin one of the most highly developed in the world. Although the FCRPS dams produce a considerable amount of low-cost hydropower, the mortalities they cause due to the construction and operation of FCRPS dams led to Endangered Species Act listings for the basin’s salmon. Since those listings a quarter-century ago, the federal government has struggled to produce biological opinions that can survive judicial scrutiny, repeatedly failing to do so. The latest round of litigation resulted in renewed directive from the federal district court of Oregon to revise the current biological opinion and to spill water at several dams in the interim to facilitate salmon migration. The directive to spill was upheld by the Ninth Circuit in 2018, but the U.S. House of Representatives quickly voted to overturn that decision, and the Senate now has the matter under consideration. This article considers the latest round of Columbia Basin salmon litigation and the threat of congressional intervention. We also examine the fate of four Snake River FCRPS dams that have proved particularly hazardous to listed salmon. These dams provide no flood control, easily replaceable power, and barge navigation for which there are also ready substitutes. The article maintains that since these four dams can pass no reasonable cost-benefit test, Congress should not act to revise the court-ordered spills but instead order the lower Snake River dams removed, which would begin the restoration the listed Snake River salmon and result in the transformation of the economy of the Snake Basin in eastern Washington and Oregon, and in Idaho.

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