DamSense Tribute to Jim Waddell

Posted /Library, Must Reads

We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Jim Waddell, the founder of DamSense and a tireless advocate for the Pacific Northwest. If you knew Jim, you know the magnitude of this loss–not just for the movement to breach the Lower Snake River Dams (LSRD) but also for our community. We will remember Jim for the integrity and intelligence he brought to conversations about breaching the dams, as well as for the humor and kindness he showed to all of us fortunate enough to work with him. 

Jim dedicated his 35-year career to public service in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Science Foundation. He was widely recognized as a leader in the field of sustainable water resource management, engineering regulations, and environmental policy. Among his proudest accomplishments was an Environmental and Cultural Resource Immersion Course taught by Native Americans on their lands, an initiative that improved federal employees’ understanding as well as relations with regional Tribes. Throughout his distinguished career, Jim was known for his deep thinking, unflinching honesty, and impressive collection of bow ties.

Jim became an expert on the LSRD and their disastrous effects on salmon while working for the USACE Walla Walla District during their Lower Snake River Feasibility study. In 1999, with a clear and comprehensive perspective on the situation, he recommended breaching in order to comply with environmental law, tribal rights, and fiscal responsibility–an assessment that was ignored at the time but has been consistently validated since.  

After his retirement, Jim spent the next decade fighting against the failed LSRD projects and on behalf of the region he loved. His knowledge of the dams’ history, hydropower, finances, and ecological impacts played a crucial role in educating stakeholders and motivating advocates. A candid and compelling speaker, Jim appeared in Patagonia Films’ DamNation: The Problem with Hydropower and countless public events. He will be featured in the forthcoming expose by filmmaker John Carlos Frey.  

In forming DamSense, Jim partnered with the late Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research to call attention to the plight of the critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, who rely on vanishing Chinook in the Columbia/Snake River Basin. In 2021, Jim and Ken collaborated with Native American politician and businessperson Paulette Jordan and DamSense board member Chris Pinney (retired Senior Fisheries Biologist, USACE Walla Walla District) to present a “Shovel Ready” proposal to President Biden outlining the cost, reasons, authority and obligation to order immediate breaching of the LSRD. Despite the negligent lack of response, Jim continued to file letters of record filled with expert testimony and persuasive arguments, creating an invaluable archive on DamSense.org.

Jim’s battle with cancer did not deter him from this work. He continued to serve as amicus in the federal lawsuit National Wildlife Federation, et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, et al.  (D. Or. Case No. 3:01-cv-00640). In court filings, confidential mediation discussions, and public forums, Jim explained the pathway for immediate dam breaching without Congressional authorization, as documented in “The US President and Army Corps’ Discretion and Authority with Regard to Executive Action in Furtherance of Breaching the Lower Snake River Dams.” With continued delay fatal to endangered salmon and orcas, Jim often emphasized our collective moral obligation to hold the White House and Corps accountable for the consequences of their failure to act.

In the months before he passed, Jim characteristically made plans for the future, inviting new members to join the DamSense board and coaching us on strategy in the wake of the disastrous NWF v. NMF agreement that delays breaching beyond the point of recovery. We will miss his candor, energy, and unfailing decency, and we are dedicated to continuing his legacy of evidence-based advocacy on behalf of Snake River salmon and the entire ecosystem that relies on them–before it is too late.

We are planning a celebration of Jim’s life and legacy in the coming months. In the meantime, we welcome your tributes and support for DamSense to continue his life’s work.