Words by Sam Mace, Inland Northwest Director, Save Our Wild Salmon
Photos by Ben Moon, Patagonia
Spokane, WA: More than 300 people launched from Wawawai Landing for Lower Granite Dam Saturday where the colorful flotilla of kayaks, canoes, drift boats and motor rigs rallied around a 100-foot banner with a simple message: “Free the Snake.”
Early morning rain, wind and clouds left and the sun came out as spectators cheered the flotilla from shore. Boats adorned with banners and salmon art carried costumed paddlers, orca advocates, anglers from Idaho and eastern Washington, river conservationists, salmon advocates, musicians, artists, scientists, and Nez Perce tribal members across the reservoir. After returning to shore, the group celebrated the largest gathering of dam removal advocates in recent history with baked salmon and fry bread.
The flotilla included several sportsmen who remembered the bounty of the lower Snake River Canyon before slack water inundated thousands of acres of prime hunting lands, wildlife habitat, steelhead runs and hiking, not to mention the productive fruit orchards and farm lands. Some were part of the battle waged by sportsmen to stop the dams in the 1960s and 70s before the four reservoirs flooded the Snake River corridor from Asotin, Idaho, to Pasco, Washington. Though the dams were built, the debate has never ended, and in recent years voices speaking out in favor of dam removal have multiplied.
This summer endangered Snake River salmon died by the thousands due to hot water in the reservoirs. The water behind the lower Snake dams became especially lethal. In 2015, conditions were so brutal that endangered Idaho sockeye had to be trucked from Lower Granite Dam to central Idaho. Of the thousands of fish that began the journey upstream from the sea, less than 50 fish made it past the dams.
It’s time to give these fish an easier journey up the Columbia and Snake rivers to the thousands of miles of pristine habitat in the upper Snake River basin–for the good of the rivers, for fishermen, tribes and the Puget Sound orcas that depend on Chinook for survival.
But salmon aren’t the only reason to remove these four dams. These aging, out-dated dams are costing taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs, upgrades and expensive dredging, while their value to the Northwest is in steep decline. Their original purpose of providing barge traffic to Lewiston, Idaho, is no long makes economic sense; barging is down more than 60 percent as shippers shift to more efficient alternatives. The dams provide less than 4 percent of the power to BPA markets, no flood control and only a small amount of irrigation that could continue without the dams.
And the dams are stifling Lewiston-Clarkston’s economy. These small towns sit at the confluence of two of the greatest rivers in the west: the Snake and the Clearwater. What could be an attractive waterfront attached to a vibrant downtown is a tall levee blocking the river from the community. Sterile rip-rapped banks have replaced the city beaches that residents once flocked to on hot summer days before the dams.
It’s time for all who have a stake in the river—conservationists, fishing businesses, tribes, orca advocates, utilities, local towns and farmers—to come to the table and talk dam removal.
Save Our wild Salmon is committed to working with farmers and others to further support the shift to rail and other transportation that is already occurring. We look forward to working with other stakeholders to bring back the tremendous fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, free-flowing waterfront and other values now lost under stagnant reservoirs.
The 350 people who came together at Wawawai are part of a groundswell that is occurring in the Northwest, nationally and in eastern Washington, one that our elected leaders can ignore no longer.
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