Where the river meets with a concrete wall, the fish have nowhere to go. Towering one hundred feet in the air and spanning over half a mile, the Lower Granite Dam in southeast Washington is one of four federal hydroelectric dams situated on the Lower Snake River. The Snake River stretches from Wyoming to Washington, passing though Idaho and Oregon on its way to the Columbia and eventually to the Pacific.
I visited the Lower Granite Dam in April. Driving along the beautiful Palouse Highway, I was surprised at the juxtaposition of energy sources—fossil fuels, windmills, and hydroelectric dams. When the four Lower Snake River dams were built in the 1960s and 70s, they were celebrated for providing irrigation for crops, transportation for agricultural products, and as an endless source of clean energy. Now, decades later, we not only understand the true cost of damming the river, but also have access to more viable energy, transportation, and irrigation alternatives. These seemingly beneficial dams have proven to be an ecological disaster for the region’s salmon populations, and, by extension, for our Southern Resident orcas.
Adult salmon returning to their birthplaces must pass up to eight dams: four on the Columbia and four on the Snake. Juvenile fish, called smolt, face an even more dangerous journey. The dams transform the fast-flowing river into a series of lakes that sometimes rise to temperatures higher than the tolerable threshold for these fish. These stagnant lakes also cause a timing issue. A journey that once took five to seven days on a free river now takes upwards of several weeks, sometimes exceeding the biological window available for smolt to transition from freshwater to saltwater. Other methods of getting the juvenile fish to the sea, such as barging or transporting by truck, have not mitigated this high mortality rate.
Let us think on that for a minute. These fish, who used to fill the river fin to fin, are now trucked to the ocean. Whether on land or in the water, they are inescapably surrounded by concrete. Populations have fallen so low that a major keystone species of the Pacific Northwest is failing, much to our ecological, cultural, and even economic peril. The Southern Resident orcas in particular feel the far-reaching impact of these dams as they starve to death in the waters of the Salish Sea, inextricably tied to the fate of the salmon.
There is no guarantee that removing the dams will save the nearly extinct salmon populations. But we do know that without immediate action, they will disappear. And with them will go an integral part of our northwest culture, a defining icon of the region, and quite possibly the beloved Southern Resident orca. So, I urge you to educate yourself on the issue, and speak up. Send an email or write a letter to a lawmaker calling for the removal of the Lower Four Snake River Dams. Watch the powerful film Dammed to Extinction. Attend a virtual event in the coming weeks to celebrate Orca Action Month. We must be the voice of the salmon and orca, for they cannot speak up for themselves.
by Kaia Olson, high school sophomore from Spokane