To Breach or Not to Breach?

by John Kruse, February 21, 2021


It’s been on ongoing discussion for thirty years. Should we breach the four Lower Snake River dams to save dwindling runs of salmon and steelhead? The question has been repeatedly litigated in court as have efforts to mitigate dam operations to help smolt survive their journey downstream and adult fish survive their journey upstream through eight dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to spawn in the Snake, the Salmon, the Clearwater, the Grande Ronde and other tributaries.

A number of Democrat party lawmakers, to include Oregon Governor Kate Brown, have called for removal of the dams in recent years but for the first time, a Republican is also calling for this to happen. Congressman Mike Simpson from Idaho unveiled an Energy Salmon Concept earlier this month. It’s a proposal calling for 33.5 billion dollars to be spent breaching the four dams and then making the region economically whole. Simpson points out in his proposal that 17 billion dollars have already been spent on salmon and steelhead on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and we continue to lose ground. Simpson argues while a $33.5 billion (minimum) price tag is a lot, the alternative is to spend another $20 billion in the next 30 years and watch Chinook and sockeye salmon runs in Idaho rivers go extinct. The proposal received immediate support from a number of conservation and fishing organizations to include Trout Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Sportfishing Association and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

There are also those who oppose this measure to include Washington Republican Congresswomen Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Congressman Dan Newhouse. In a recent opinion piece, Congressman Newhouse wrote, “the benefits of the dams stretch far beyond clean energy generation and affordable power. From irrigation for our region’s farmers to transportations of goods and flood control, the benefits are countless.”

Another group that opposes the removal of these dams is the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. Executive Director Kristin Meira points out 10 percent of wheat exports in the United States are barged down the Snake River, something that wouldn’t be done if the dams are breached. Meira says using roads and rails to transport these goods will have a large carbon impact and would be less safe than using barges. Meira also believes ocean conditions caused by climate change as well as urban runoff are contributing more to the decline of these runs, not only on the Snake River but in many places in the Pacific Northwest, and questions whether removing the dams will actually save these fish.

The proposal calls for removing the dams by 2031 and 10 billion dollars to be given to the Bonneville Power Administration to develop replacement energy sources. The proposal also calls for the establishment of the Lower Snake River National Recreation Area after the dams are breached, an area that like the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, would be used by anglers, hunters, jet boaters, rafters, wildlife watchers and campers. A total of 450 million dollars would be spent to promote tourism in the region, for outdoor recreational activities and to move marinas currently in place on the Snake that would be left high and dry by dam breaching.

Congressman Simpson makes clear this proposal is not a bill or pending bill. However, it certainly is a starting point for a bipartisan group of lawmakers to draft a bill along the lines of this proposal. With the Democratic Party in control, and several senior Democrat senators and governors in a position to help push this through, this proposal could gain some quick momentum in the weeks ahead. You can find out more about Congressman Simpson’s Energy Salmon Concept online at

John Kruse – and


1. Little Goose Dam on the Snake River – Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
2. Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River – Courtesy USACE


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