The lower Snake River’s story is one of abundance and scarcity, prosperity and poverty, and unfortunate government deception that betrays the public trust. It is a story about how a federal agency cooked its books to validate infrastructure that, then as much as now, couldn’t be justified economically. And it’s a story about fleecing native people of their most cherished resources.

The lower Snake River dams were built between 1961 and 1975, but they were imagined as early as the 1910s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received Congressional authorization to build a 5-foot navigable channel from the Columbia River to Lewiston, an idea abandoned in 1917 “due to lack of traffic,” according to a letter sent from the Portland District Engineer to Congress.

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Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, proposals to build dams on the lower Snake continued to fail basic cost-benefit analyses, but the Corps remained steadfast. At the time the Northwest was awash in hydroelectric power—and more wasn’t needed, so in order to get its cost-benefit analysis to pencil out the agency added to its hydro benefit calculations the “cost of equivalent power produced … by steam-electric plants.”

In other words, the Corps couldn’t justify new dams for navigation or to generate hydropower, so instead of calculating the figures head-on the agency included as a benefit the cost of not having to build the generation capacity the region didn’t need.

Moreover, the agency did this despite advance notice that the dams would decimate the region’s abundant salmon.

“The problem of passing migratory fish over dams on the lower Snake River was discussed with representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Washington Department of Fisheries, Fish Commission of Oregon, Oregon State Game Commission, and the State of Idaho Department of Fish and Game,” according to a 1947 Corps report on the dams. “The consensus of opinion of these agencies was that any series of dams on the lower Snake River would be hazardous and might entirely eliminate the runs of migratory fish in that stream.”

Early history

The Pacific Northwest is a place where salmon have left a distinct cultural and biological stamp on the people and land. The impression is indelible in the region’s history, people, biology and nomenclature.

The native Lemhi-Shoshone Indians called themselves Agaidika, meaning “salmon eaters.” Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho won its name from the glow 20,000 shimmering sockeye salmon created when they returned each fall to the waters of their birth. The serpentine Salmon River, with its famous whitewater rapids, was not named coincidentally.

The Snake River once supported millions of salmon, a silvery horde ascending to their natal streams. Tribes living along the Snake and its tributaries partook of this abundance, and because of the bounty were among the wealthiest Native Americans in the region.

For the Nez Perce Tribe salmon were a way of life. The tribe depended on salmon for sustenance, and its nomadic patterns followed the cycles of salmon returns. The Nez Perce creation story features salmon, which offered themselves to feed the people.

Nez Perce Leroy Seth explains the importance of this keystone species to his people in the book, “Salmon and His People: Fish & Fishing in Nez Perce Culture.”

“The salmon are one of our best teachers,” he said. “We learn from them that we have to do certain things by the seasons. We watch the salmon as smolts going to the ocean and observe them returning home. We see the many obstacles that they have to overcome. We see them fulfill the circle of life, just as we must do.”

More than 150 years ago, in 1855, the Nez Perce Tribe signed a treaty with the United States. In it the Nez Perce retained total fishing rights on all streams and rivers within the boundaries of the original 13.4 million acre reservation that extended outward to “all usual and accustomed places,” including the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.

But as with other promises the United States made to tribes throughout the country, the treaty stood in the way of progress, and salmon fishing opportunities in the “usual and accustomed places” have been all but eliminated.

This story isn’t only about the Nez Perce. The Columbia and Snake river fisheries supported all of the nearby tribes, many of which hold treaty rights that have not been upheld.

Sleight of hand

Commercial navigation began on the lower Snake River in 1861 with the discovery of gold in the Clearwater basin of Idaho, and the hub of the era’s commerce was the city of Lewiston where shallow-draft sternwheelers arrived with goods to support the region’s boom towns. After gold played out in the mountains east and south of Lewiston the city shrank, and the sternwheelers were largely replaced by railroads.

For decades railroads transported goods to and from the lower Snake region, but farmers were held captive by the price that rail operators set. The waterway, the politicians reasoned, would create a new source of competition to drive prices down.

In 1938 the Corps sent a series of three official letters and reports to Congress, and all three stated that transportation benefits were insufficient to justify the large cost of dam construction on the lower Snake.

By the 1940s the Army Corps and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation were racing each other throughout the United States on a quest to dam every free-flowing river. Any river without a dam was considered a safety hazard or a resource with untapped potential.

In the mid-1940s when the United States was awash in manpower and Columbia River hydropower, local politicians made a concerted push for dam construction on the lower Snake. The Army Corps submitted new plans for a series of dams, which were approved in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1945. The authorized purpose of the dams was for navigation and flood control, with the additional possible inclusion of penstocks to be used for hydroelectric generation.

“Such recommendations shall be based upon consideration of the proper utilization and conservation in the public interest of the resources of the region,” according to the Act.

Five months later, the Army Corps prepared a report for Congress recommending the four-dam configuration present today. Original designs had included up to a total of 10 dams.

The 1945 report also included a cost-benefit analysis that showed a ratio of 0.5 to 1, indicating that the dams would cost twice as much as the resulting benefit. The project stalled.

Political pressure continued to mount, however, and the Corps completed a new report in 1947, this time leaving out a cost-benefit analysis of navigation. Instead, all costs and benefits were combined to substantiate a “multi-purpose” project that included hydro and resulted in a cost-benefit ratio of 0.8 to 1—still not sufficient to justify the dams.

That’s when the Corps implemented its sleight-of-hand and cited the cost of steam- electricity generation as evidence to offset the unneeded benefit of hydroelectricity that would be produced at the dams.

Additional examples of the Corps’ overstated benefits are common in the 1947 document. Under Irrigation Benefits, for example, the analysis states that “about 212,000 acres might ultimately be irrigated by pumping from the pools of the proposed dams.” In reality, only 32,000 acres were ever irrigated, and even then required uphill pumping from the reservoirs to the fields—a practice that would easily continue without the dams. Never mind that the steeply rolling terrain of eastern Washington’s Palouse makes irrigation infrastructure economically infeasible for the majority of the area.

Contemporary history

While the Army Corps has a clear history of understating costs and overstating benefits on the lower Snake River, such practices easily also describe the Corps’ modern-day practices on the river.

Following construction of the lower Snake River dams all of the Snake River basin’s salmon were declared extinct or added to the list of threatened and endangered species. And that ushered in an era of federal studies that are supposed to stem and reverse the decline of the Northwest’s once mythic salmon runs.

Between the mid-1990s and today, NOAA Fisheries has released a series of Biological Opinions, each of which have been challenged and overturned in federal court for failure to take dam removal and salmon recovery more seriously.

In its 2002 analysis on breaching the four dams, called the Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report, the Walla Walla District of the Corps vastly understated the costs of maintaining and operating the four dams on the lower Snake. The report concluded that modifications to the dams would result in recovery of 13 species of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, and that the economic benefits of keeping the dams in place far exceeded those of a free-flowing river. They have not.

And in 2008 federal agencies headed by the Bonneville Power Administration orchestrated a $1 billion deal with regional tribes and states—The Columbia Basin Fish Accords—that exchanged their allegiance to fish for the status quo of dams while funding hatchery and habitat restoration efforts—so long as the dams are left out of signatories’ crosshairs.

“Signatories had to stop fighting the biological opinion, which the tribes had attacked in court for its failure to help fish,” according to a December 8, 2014 article in High Country News. “They also agreed not to advocate for dam breaching or increased spill—water that’s allowed to flow over dams, rather than through turbines, to help juvenile fish survive their trip downriver—until the deal expired in 2018. ‘My reaction was that (the Accords) were bribes,’ said Michael Blumm, a professor at Lewis & Clark law school.”

The parts and pieces of the federal bureaucracy defending the lower Snake’s unneeded and wasteful dams is staggering, but at the center of it is the Corps’ 2002 report that skewed reality to show that economics favor keeping the dams. But an honest economic analysis turns the conclusions of the report on its head. The belief that we cannot afford to breach the lower Snake River dams is false; the opposite is true. Neither the American public, nor the Army Corps, can afford to keep the four lower Snake River dams in place.

A 2015 professional revaluation of the 2002 report—correcting earlier cost projections with now available actual costs and addressing omissions, errors, miscalculations and faulty assumptions—demonstrates the Walla Walla District understated the true cost of keeping the dams in place by a staggering $160.7 million on an average annual basis.

Click here to read the reevaluation performed by professional engineer and former Army Corps project manager Jim Waddell.

[1] U.S. House of Representatives Document 704, 75th sess., 1938, page 21.

[2] Special Report on Selection of Sites, Lower Snake River: Oregon, Idaho and Washington, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, March 1947.

[3] Special Report on Selection of Sites, Lower Snake River: Oregon, Idaho and Washington, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, March 1947.

[4] Landeen, Dan, and Allen Pinkham. Salmon and His People: Fish & Fishing in Nez Perce Culture. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1999.

[5] Goldfarb, Ben, “The great salmon compromise.” High Country News, December 8, 2014.

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Breach the Lower Snake River Dams to save Southern Resident Killer Whales