All photos by Cameron Karsten
By the time steelhead or salmon pass the town of Riggins, Idaho, during their return migration to the Salmon River, they will have swum more than 500 miles against the current—the length of the Oregon-Washington border—and climbed over 1,800 feet above sea level.
Depending on the species, and where in the watershed they were born, many of them would still have many more miles to go before reaching their spawning grounds. The salmon would be nearing the end of their life cycle: But none will survive the journey. The majority of the steelhead won’t survive the ordeal either. But a few of them, if they aren’t too exhausted, will utilize spring runoff to carry them back to the ocean so they can attempt the entire process again.
The returning fish will have crossed the eight massive, main-stem dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers before turning into the mouth of the Salmon River. If they hadn’t been among the juvenile fish transported in barges and trucks operated by state Fish and Game agencies, they would have crossed those same eight monoliths years earlier as smolts heading out to sea. They would have done so at a much slower pace than their ancestors, and suffered dramatically higher mortality rates, because of the slow, warm water impounded behind the dams and the gauntlet of hungry non-native predators—walleye, smallmouth bass and channel catfish—now prowling the stagnant reservoirs.
The four federal dams on the Lower Snake River—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite—have been at the center of bitter conflict over the future of the Snake Basin’s salmon and steelhead since before their construction began in 1956. Even then there were warnings against the damage the dams would cause. It wasn’t a secret. There were already plenty of examples of what dams did to rivers and migratory fish, but politicians decided that barge transportation, an inland port at Lewiston, Idaho, and “cheap” electricity were worth the trade. They promised that hatcheries would simply replace the lost steelhead and salmon, a mollifying ecological lie proven wrong almost immediately after construction was complete.
For generations, these four dams have been killing the Snake River’s native salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and lamprey. Scientists have been telling us for years that the dams must be removed to have any hope of preventing the Snake’s remaining salmon and steelhead from slipping into extinction, let alone having a chance to begin restoring their populations. Decades of repeated lawsuits, inadequate federal hydropower management and salmon recovery plans rejected by the courts, and $18 billion of mitigation efforts have failed to stop the declines. Today, the basin’s steelhead, sockeye salmon, and spring/summer and fall Chinook salmon are all listed under the Endangered Species Act. The dams keep grinding along, but conservationists, tribes, anglers, commercial fishermen and river communities have never stopped fighting to remove them.
The need to restore a free-flowing Lower Snake is only growing more pressing as the looming threats and growing impacts of climate change bear down on the watersheds and remaining fish. As of writing, wild steelhead numbers are so low that 2021 is likely the worst run ever recorded in the Columbia and Snake. In April, the Nez Perce Tribe’s fishery scientists released a stark report showing that nearly half the Snake River’s spring Chinook have reached quasi-extinction thresholds. The basin’s steelhead are close on their heels, and the majority of populations will continue on similar grim trends without consequential intervention. Sockeye salmon are barely hanging on. We are losing these fish in real time as distinct populations in specific tributaries slip to numbers too low to sustain themselves or survive losses in commercial or sport fisheries, a drought or a prolonged heatwave.
The dams, and their impacts on the watershed’s native fish, have been a political third rail for years in the Northwest, but that grim stalemate shattered in February 2021 when Republican Representative Mike Simpson from Idaho released his plan proposing to breach the four Lower Snake River dams and invest widely in the region’s transportation, energy and irrigation infrastructure to replace their services. The proposal was never finished legislation, but the concept received robust support from regional tribes, some cautious bipartisan support, vehement and dishonest condemnations from some of Rep. Simpson’s fellow Republicans and a wide range of responses from conservation and fishery groups. In the end, the plan failed to secure placeholder funding in the federal budget, but the fundamental principle of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams to prevent salmon extinction was suddenly no longer an unspoken, avoidable topic for the region’s elected officials.
In the following months, the Environmental Protection Agency finally established legal guidelines for water temperatures in the Columbia and Lower Snake that could force consequential changes to hydropower operations. The Biden administration and litigants in the long-running lawsuit challenging federal hydropower operations and salmon recovery plans agreed to pause litigation for new negotiations seeking a comprehensive solution for the watershed and its struggling fish. Washington Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee have announced a new process to study salmon recovery and are even considering removing the Lower Snake dams. They’ve promised their recommendations by July 2022.
In river communities throughout Idaho, Washington and Oregon, where residents and tribes have spent generations watching salmon and steelhead runs falter and collapse, there is a deep need for leadership and practical solutions for breaching the dams before it is too late for the Inland West’s fish and the people and landscapes depending on the arrival of salmon each season.
Photographer Cameron Karsten and I got invited to Riggins, Idaho, by Roy Akins, a fishing guide and the owner of Rapid River Outfitters, a member of the Riggins city council and chairman of the Riggins Chapter of the Idaho River Community Alliance. The steelhead season was winding down, and he had a couple days available to show us around town, talk about the pressing need to remove the Lower Snake Dams and do some fishing. I suppose it would have been easier to just chat with Roy a couple times on the phone and read his great letters to the editor in regional newspapers, but when someone with a lifetime of experience on the water offers to show you their home water, it is impossible to turn down the opportunity.
Riggins is a small, narrow town sitting at the base of a steep canyon where the Little Salmon River joins the mainstem Salmon at an oxbow. It is home to a little more than 400 people year-round and is built tight against the riverbank, about 87 miles upstream of the Salmon’s confluence with the mighty Snake. In the 19th century, it was a remote outpost serving gold miners and trappers called “Gouge Eye,” named for the vicious results of an infamous brawl at a local saloon, until it was renamed after a prominent family who also happened to operate the town’s postal service.
Of course, long before then, the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) lived, hunted, gathered and fished in this deep valley filled with salmon. Downstream, near the confluence of the Snake and Salmon Rivers, is the site of an ancient village called Nipéhe. Archeologists have dated artifacts from here over 16,000 years old. Astoundingly, it is thought to be the oldest known site of human habitation in North America.
The Nimiipuu people are still here today, but control of the land was taken by the United States government through violence, federal decree and dishonest treaties. They were forced onto a reservation but still fish the rivers each season and remain tireless leaders in the fight to restore a free-flowing Lower Snake River.
Riggins was founded as a remote mining outpost soon after Lewis and Clark passed through the region and continued as a hub for the timber industry for another century, but after the big trees were largely gone and the local sawmill burned down in 1982 the community has turned back toward the Salmon River. It hasn’t always been easy, but the town has successfully made a transition from an economy built on relentless, unsustainable extraction to one built around river recreation.
Today, tourists from across the globe visit during the summer for the renowned white-water rafting, jet-boat tours or to disappear into the sprawling roadless area of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. But as Roy explains, the rest of the year, as long as there are enough fish returning to allow a season, “It is steelhead and salmon fishing that keeps the lights on and doors open in Riggins.”
Steelhead fishing in Riggins is a community endeavor, and Roy starts his days on the water with breakfast at the River Rock Cafe. A little after daybreak on a clear, blustery morning, we joined him and a small group of guides, colleagues, clients and friends at the cafe. Over a truly exceptional plate of homemade biscuits and gravy, we talked about the steelhead season (like elsewhere across the West this year, the pandemic had driven traffic to the rivers, but fish counts have been very low) and made plans to meet up with a few of the folks that evening and the next morning.
The Salmon River is more than 400 miles long and is one of America’s longest rivers to remain undammed on its main stem. It drops 7,000 feet in elevation along its course and much of it flows through a rugged, wild landscape still only accessible by boat. Long known as “The River of No Return,” its Middle Fork was included among the eight rivers designated in the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 and, within the boundaries of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, it flows through isolated chasms deeper than the Grand Canyon.
We floated a section of the Salmon upriver of town. The river was still holding at winter’s low flows but beginning to show a touch of color from the snow starting to melt in the mountains. Soon, when runoff began in earnest, the river would fill to the banks and regain the velocity and huge rapids that make it famous among kayakers and white-water rafters. Those flows and remote location mean the Salmon River is a watershed that breeds powerful strains of long-migrating steelhead and salmon. Among others, the sockeye salmon that return to Redfish Lake in the river’s headwaters, one of the longest salmon migrations in North America, climb 6,500 feet of elevation and swim 900 miles by the time their journey home to spawn is complete.
Roy has been fishing and floating the Salmon River most of his life. He grew into his role as civic leader and city council member in the last decade or so, but he has been involved in the fight to breach the Lower Snake River dams as long as he’s been on the Salmon. As a young man, after only a single sockeye salmon—dubbed “Lonesome Larry”—returned to Redfish Lake in 1992, he and a group of friends swam the entire distance between Redfish Lake and Lower Granite Dam to call attention to the loss of salmon smolts during their migration out to sea. They swam it as a relay and stopped in the communities along the way to talk about the toll the four Washington dams take on Idaho’s fish. Soon after, he and his wife moved to Riggins permanently to raise their family and build a life around fish and the free-flowing Salmon River.
“We got lucky for a few years, with good snowpack in the mountains and some productive ocean conditions,” he explains. “It made us a little complacent. We had relatively strong runs of steelhead and Chinook. We had long fishing seasons and anglers came from everywhere. We got a small taste of what abundance could feel like for a town like Riggins, but in 2015, we learned again how vulnerable these runs have become.”
That year, record-breaking heat baked the reservoirs behind the dams. Almost the entire returning run of sockeye salmon died in the hot water before they could get back to spawn, and huge percentages of steelhead and salmon smolts were lost. Those that survived swam out into the warm waters and disrupted food web of “The Blob” in the North Pacific. “We knew it was going to be bad, but we didn’t realize how terrible it would be until a few years later when the fish didn’t show up,” Roy said.
“If we don’t take the steps to get this right and help the fish survive now, we’ll lose them and the rural communities, like Riggins, that depend on them.”
The numbers are stark. Runs in the Snake River Basin have crashed to some of the worst returns on record in recent years. Salmon and steelhead seasons have been reduced or closed. When there aren’t fish, the anglers don’t arrive either. A large hotel in Riggins went out of business as angler traffic dwindled and rural communities across Northern Idaho have seen millions of dollars of revenue provided by the fishing economy evaporate. The loss of economic activity is destructive in obvious ways, and can leave river towns reeling, but the loss of the fish resonates even deeper than money measures. It hurts deeply when the river feels like it is dying.
Roy points out that recent years of poor ocean conditions affect every salmon and steelhead population in the basin, but reminds us that rivers like the John Day, a tributary of the Columbia, have much better rates of smolt survival during the same time frames. Every dam takes a toll, but those salmon and steelhead only need to cross three dams. The fish migrating to and from Idaho must cross eight. The four Lower Snake dams impound and heat a combined 140 miles of river. Aside from the direct loss of valuable Chinook spawning habitat drowned by accumulated silt and still water in their reservoirs, the dams, and their slack water reservoirs, simply kill too many fish. Smolt-to-adult survival rates of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead are frequently documented dropping below replacement levels, a sure trajectory toward extinction.
The losses are particularly excruciating because Northern Idaho still has much of the best remaining habitat anywhere in the Columbia or Snake River watershed. Within the upper reaches of the Clearwater and Salmon River drainages, with the bitter exception of the North Fork of the Clearwater where the Dworshak Dam was built without a fish ladder. Thousands of miles of intact spawning and rearing habitat is permanently protected within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and is still accessible to anadromous fish. Places like the Lemhi River and Yankee Fork are being restored after years of mining damage. All this high-elevation, cold habitat will only become more important as the climate warms and places more thermal impacts on salmon and steelhead populations during every stage of their lives.
Since the Swan Falls Dam was built on the mainstem of the Snake River in 1901, Idaho has been willfully destroying the salmon runs of the Snake River. When they completed the Hells Canyon Complex in the 1960s, the state finished the work of ending the immense runs of fish that historically swam all the way to Shoshone Falls, filling every tributary in the basin along the way. For all recorded time, Chinook and sockeye salmon returned as far as northern Nevada. The dream of breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River is a desperate last chance to preserve what remains.
Roy points upstream toward the vast roadless area of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. “Around here we like to say that we have a beautiful five-star hotel sitting here waiting for the fish to arrive. We still have incredible habitat, we just need to let the fish reach it and utilize it.” He shakes his head in frustration. He says he doesn’t know how many more hot years the fish can survive if the dams don’t get out of their way.
Ominously, a few months after we visited Riggins, the region suffered another record-breaking summer as a heat dome bore down on the Northwest. Temperatures in Portland reached 116 degrees, and the water measured at dams on the Lower Snake and Columbia Rivers held at temperatures known to be dangerous, if not lethal, for salmon and steelhead for weeks.
Roy points out that barge traffic on the river is way down. Grain can be transported by railroad, and many other goods are already going by truck. The paper mills can, and should, be updated to be more efficient and cleaner. Irrigation pipes can be lengthened, and water could be used far more efficiently. The lower Snake River dams are getting old and are increasingly expensive to maintain. They leak hydraulic fluid into the water. There are good options to replace the small amounts of low-carbon, baseload electricity the dams produce, and the government can honor treaty obligations to the Nez Perce and other tribes of the region by working with them to restore the salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and lamprey.
He reminds us, “The fish need a free-flowing river. Everything else we do on the Snake River, we can decide to do it all another way, and a better way. If we don’t take the steps to get this right and help the fish survive now, we’ll lose them and the rural communities, like Riggins, that depend on them.”
“We still have incredible habitat, we just need to let the fish reach it and utilize it.”
On our way back to Seattle, Cameron and I had planned on detouring into the Palouse to visit and photograph one of the dams strangling the Lower Snake River, but before we left Riggins, we swung by Jon and Elizabeth Kittell’s home overlooking the river for a strong cup of French press coffee flavored with cinnamon and oat milk creamer. We’d met Jon when he ran our shuttle the day we fished with Roy, and we’d made plans to connect before we left.
The Kittells first arrived in Riggins as white-water rafting guides. They lived in a camper each season and grew to love the Salmon River, the community and the landscape. Each season found them seeking ways to stay a little longer until it was clear that Riggins had become their home. Jon continued to spend many weeks on the water each year, guiding multiday raft trips and steelhead anglers. Elizabeth grew her yoga practice and hosted outdoor retreats, including multiday river trips that combined yoga and rafting. In the winter, through connections they’ve built on years of travel and study, the Kittells host trekking trips in Nepal. They don’t match my narrow assumptions about who lives in rural Idaho.
In January 2021 Jon accepted a new role as the salmon and steelhead coordinator with the Idaho Outfitters and Guide Association. Jon laughs that the transition from white-water rafting and fishing guide to working on a laptop and testifying at hearings at the Idaho Legislature has been a bit tricky, but it is a great opportunity to advocate for the communities and rivers of rural Idaho. Front and center of this work is the effort to finally find a way to restore a free-flowing Lower Snake River without leaving the people of the region behind in the process.
“It is going to take more than fishing guides to save these fish,” Jon says. “For too long, the argument to remove the four dams on the Lower Snake River pit user groups against one another. That is never going to work because in reality none of us are just one thing. When I look at my neighbors, I know they want clean water and more fish. They want to find ways to protect salmon and steelhead, but they are also farmers and ranchers, ratepayers buying electricity and business owners who need their hometowns and schools to survive. We need a plan that brings back the fish but keeps everyone whole.”
Elizabeth echoes the idea. “We are community members first and living here is beautiful. It is where we want to be. It can feel closed off to outsiders here, but when you spend time becoming neighbors and living here, you see that there are opportunities to find common ground.” She illustrates her point perfectly by telling stories of sharing cookies with neighbors who might not see eye-to-eye with their politics but still look out for each other. And the opportunity to feed their wedding guests salmon a few years earlier because of friendships she and Jon had been able to build with local Nez Perce dip-net fisherman.
Jon sees an opportunity in something like Rep. Simpson’s plan to invest in the entire region, and he knows there is great urgency to the work. He sees the salmon and steelhead populations continuing to fall and communities hurting from the loss of fish. Paraphrasing a conversation with another fishing guide, he explains, “Everyone says if we don’t find a solution soon we could lose everything. What are you talking about? Look at the fishing seasons closing … We are already losing everything. We need to embrace our chance and build something sustainable for the long term.”
While Cameron was taking photos of the Lower Granite Dam, the furthest upriver of the four Lower Snake River Dams, I found myself looking downstream. The flooded river valley was wide and stagnant. There were once millions of salmon and steelhead returning through these waters every year. Now there was a massive wall of packed earth and concrete connected to high-voltage lines and signs celebrating the recreational boating opportunity provided by the slack impoundments.
In another couple months, the first spring Chinook would be arriving. Run counts were expected to be quite low. I’m terrified we will lose these fish in my lifetime. It isn’t an unrealistic or hyperbolic fear. After all, look how much we’ve forfeited already.
I know not every dam is coming down anytime soon. Energy underpins our society and every form of making it comes with compromises. Hydropower dams are often considered a clean, renewable source of dependable electricity, but methane produced by warming reservoirs, drought impacts on their ability to produce power and the astounding damage dams cause to watershed ecosystems must be reasons to reconsider their role.
We absolutely must decarbonize our energy system and doing so at anything close to the pace required will be one of the truly monumental undertakings humanity has ever attempted. Even so, we should be able to choose which dams remain and which must be removed to ensure salmon have a path home to as many of their natal waters as possible.
These four dams are weak links in the system. They were primarily built for barge transportation, but from where I stood, I could see the railroad lines running along the high banks. Why not expand them, move things in that corridor instead and let this part of the Snake River run free and cold? Why not find a way to let some of the salmon return home?
In the Snake River Basin, salmon fed Indigenous people for millennia and European immigrants for centuries. They still could if we honored our ethical, treaty and ecological obligations. We could opt for restoration instead of extinction.
I want Riggins, and all the tribes and communities of the basin depending on migrating fish, to thrive again. I want to be fishing far upstream of the Lower Granite Dam site, on the wild, powerful Salmon River, and know there is a steelhead or a Chinook holding out in the run. But mostly, I don’t want the landscape to keep starving. Salmon have always carried marine nutrients into the interior with their bodies. They fought against gravity and the river’s current and fed the next generation of fish and all the surrounding, interconnected ecosystems.
Scientists can look at tree rings and soil samples in Northern Idaho and find nitrogen from the Pacific Ocean in both. They can also see evidence that decades of diminishing salmon returns are slowing the growth of forests in watersheds depending on the annual gift of salmon arriving. We should be wise enough to see the priceless value of these systems and recognize the importance of ensuring they are able to continue.
Today, the cycle is broken. Half measures have failed, and there is no time left to spare. The four dams on the Lower Snake River can’t be allowed to strangle the watershed any longer. They need to go. Breaching the dams is no small task, but standing at the base of Lower Granite Dam, staring at the dying Snake River, the way forward is clear even if our politics often seems moribund and short-sighted.
Now is the time for restorative shovels and dynamite. Humanity built the dams, and humanity can take them down. It’s only concrete. A future where salmon are allowed to continue migrating through a free-flowing Lower Snake River should be a vision that transcends partisanship and unites all of us across the Pacific Northwest.
Let’s not let the Snake River Basin become another place we lose completely. Let’s make it a site of collaboration, restoration and renewed abundance instead. Let’s take the opportunity, while it still exists, to ensure this watershed and its incredible native fish remain one of our best gifts to the generations still to come.
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