For the week of July 1 thru July 7, 1998  

Dam facts about a dead Snake

Commentary by Dick Dorworth

Should dams on the Snake River be removed?

Any sophisticated answer to this question must include a consideration of what one writer for the U.S. Geological Survey, in a primer on the subject of dams and rivers, termed "a realistic assessment of relative values and environmental costs."

The unsophisticated answer is a resounding "yes." Take them out. Blow the dams. Let the river run and re-learn how to live like a river instead of like a barren canal for barges and a source of cheap electricity for aluminum factories, hair dryers and televisions.

For a variety of personal, philosophical, political and spiritual reasons, I tend toward the unsophisticated solution. Blow (‘dismantle’ in officialspeak) the dams. Free the river. Save the salmon. Can Helen.

That said, it is worth a brief, if realistic assessment of what the ancient Snake River has become in the modern era of dams and compounding environmental degradation.

An anthropocentric definition of "a realistic assessment of relative values and environmental costs" can be neither broad enough, deep enough or, really, good enough for the life of the planet and the creatures who inhabit it, including those with anthropocentric minds.

The Snake deserves better than it is receiving at the hands of man, and, in the long view, better treatment of the Snake (i.e. remove the dams and let nature heal itself) will benefit man as much as the rest of earth’s flora and fauna.

The Snake is one of the major tributaries of the Columbia River, which drains more than a quarter million miles of Canada and the Pacific Northwest. From the time the 550 feet high, 4000 feet long Grand Coulee Dam was built, the Columbia was converted from 1,210 miles of free-flowing, salmon swimming, sturgeon living, biology swarming, healthy river to a series of dams and reservoirs backing into each other.

The Columbia initially generated far more electricity than the Northwest could use, but the aluminum industry, which has an enormous appetite for cheap electricity, moved into the Northwest after the dams were built and supplied the demand for the supply of power.

The dams were not built for the benefit of the people or the biotic communities of the Northwest, nor were they built to supply a demand. They created a demand that was not previously there.

The Snake is the most extensively dammed river in western America. Twenty-five dams lie in its 1000-mile path between the headwaters in Yellowstone National Park and its confluence with the Columbia River.

Idaho farmers take most of the Snake’s water by diversions at Milner Dam near Burley where it becomes a trickle. This water irrigates more than three million acres of farm land. The river is recharged by the Thousand Springs (part of which is run-off water containing herbicides, insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers from those three million acres), and by the Boise, Owyhee and Payette rivers. By the time it reaches Hells Canyon the Snake once again exhibits some signs of a living, unimpeded river, though of course it is not.

Hells Canyon may be the deepest canyon in the United States. It is a deep canyon/big river geography that makes farming and ranching difficult endeavors. That same topography inspires wet dreams in those who would build dams, and, since 1906 build dams they have.

While Idaho Power’s three dams within a 35-mile stretch of the Snake, called the Hells Canyon Complex, are not the only impediments to the river’s life, they are illustrative of what the Snake has become. The Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams contain 7 percent of the river’s annual flow. (The Glen Canyon on the Colorado holds 2.3 years of that river’s flow).

Because of their small storage capacity, these dams have little realistic flood control value. Their value to Idaho Power Company is their ability to generate hydroelectric power on short notice when peak power demand is high. The company holds the water of the Snake behind the dams when electrical demand is low, and releases water when the demand (as well as the price per kilowatt-hour) is high.

Because the dams trap all the natural river flow sediment, the beaches below the dams are disappearing, and many of them are already gone.

The Snake carries the designation of a Wild and Scenic River, and it is within a National Recreation Area. Because these areas were designated in 1975, long after Idaho Power was licensed to build the dams, they are hollow, unrealistic, valueless and misleading designations. The Snake River is no more wild than a muzzled penthouse poodle dog on a leash.

Below the dams, riparian areas as well as the beaches are degraded and denied the normal cycles of river habitat.

The most catastrophic victims of the dams have been the salmon that once crowded the Snake. Now salmon are rare. Five to 14 percent of adult salmon are killed at each of the eight dams they must negotiate on the Columbia. When spawning is successful, young salmon have even lower rates of success in migrating downstream through the reservoirs.

Today, none of the inconsiderable salmon that survive the Columbia are able to migrate above Hells Canyon Dam, though a few, with the miraculous tenacity of life itself, manage to reproduce below the dam despite the catastrophically affected habitat.

A realistic assessment of the dams of the Snake shows that the salmon that must depend on the river are doomed to extinction.

The dams are choking the life from the Snake, an example of the relative values of a relatively short-term economy existing at the expense of not only the long-term value but the very life of the environment that sustains salmon and human alike.


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