The movement to free the Lower Snake River cannot be dammed

Each individual action we take is like a stream: when even the smallest trickle of water joins with more water, it can grow to be a powerful river that can shape entire ecosystems. The movement to stop salmon and orca extinction is growing, and it will not be dammed.

DOW | Used by permission
Environment America staff and other environmental advocates attend a tribal-led Salmon Orca Project rally in support of breaching the four Lower Snake River Dams.

In 2018, the world watched as Southern Resident orca mother Tahlequah carried her calf, which died just thirty minutes after birth, for 17 days and over 1000 miles across the Salish Sea.

This “tour of grief” was a wake up call for many, who may have been peripherally aware of the broader extinction crisis that we’re facing in the Pacific Northwest, but hadn’t been entrenched in the decades-long efforts to restore salmon habitat. It gave us a sense of what is at stake- what the loss of keystone species like salmon, and the Southern Resident orca that depend on salmon- would mean for our ecosystems, and our communities.

Orcas jumping
Public domain | Public Domain

Even before the four dams on the Lower Snake River were finalized in 1975, conservation advocates warned of the dire consequences that the dams would have on the basin’s fish populations, which once supported almost 50% of the chinook and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin. Southern Resident orcas spend a significant amount of time at the mouth of the Columbia River hunting for Chinook salmon, their preferred prey. But, by the mid-1990’s, all Snake River salmon populations were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and prey scarcity has been named a primary threat to the recovery of the endangered Southern Resident orcas.  The death of Tahlequah’s calf in 2018 was not an isolated incident: studies suggest up to two-thirds of pregnancies in the Southern Resident orca population now fail.

Record-breaking heat waves have returned year-after-year to the Pacific Northwest, warming our rivers to unsafe temperatures, further underscoring the urgency of the risk of extinction for these cold-water-loving keystone species. The status quo is failing us, and Northwest elected officials are finally starting to act in accordance with this reality.

In 2021, Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho came out with a plan to breach the Snake River dams and replace the services they provide in order to restore salmon populations. That summer, tribal nations organized the inaugural Salmon Orca Summit to shine a light on the urgent need to protect and recover endangered salmon and orca populations. Not long after, Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray initiated their own effort to come up with a comprehensive plan to restore Snake River fish runs, building off of Rep. Simpson’s work. Their draft report, released in June 2022, affirms what salmon and orca advocates have been saying for years: that breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River is the best chance we have to bring salmon and orcas back from the brink of extinction. We’re expecting their final report and recommendations on dam removal by the beginning of August 2022.

NOAA report released in July 2022 directly states: “Breaching is specifically recommended for the four lower Snake River dams”, and that “the science robustly supports … acting, and acting now.”  It is also clear that replacing the energy and transportation services provided by the dams is feasible and affordable.

Thousands of people have sent emails, postcards, and made phone calls into the offices of their elected officials, calling on them to act boldly to restore endangered salmon and orca populations. Tribal members and leaders, environmentalists, anglers, youth, and activists of all political stripes continue to raise voices from Washington state to Washington, D.C.

DOW | Used by permission
Environment America staff and other environmental advocates attend a tribal-led Salmon Orca Project rally in support of breaching the four Lower Snake River Dams.

Environment Washington, alongside of tribal Nations including the Nez Perce, Yakima, and the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, with our partners in the Save our Wild Salmon Coalition, have made made the case in the media and through demonstrated grassroots support that breaching the Lower Snake River dams not only makes sense for salmon and orca, but has broad public support.

Pam Clough speaking at rally to save theNicole Walter salmon.

Photo by Nicole Walters | TPIN

Save Salmon Not Dams Banner Raise- Tribal Canoe

7 Waters Canoe Family raises a banner stating "Save Salmon Not Dams"

Photo by Pam Clough | TPIN

Backbone Campaign orchestrates a human orca mural during a rally in Willamette Park in Portland, Ore., on June 25, 2022, to call for removal of Lower Snake River dams in order to restore habitat for wild salmon and orca. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy)

Photo by Alex Milan Tracy | TPIN

Advocates and Activists raise a banner calling to stop salmon extinction and save orca in Tacoma, WA.

Photo by Emily Dinatale | Used by permission

On the water banner raise by Kayakivists at the Rally for Salmon. Free the Snake River, June 25, 2022, photo credit Alex Milan Tracy

Photo by Alex Milan Tracy | TPIN

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In the last month alone, nearly 70,000 individuals have taken action on this campaign, whether through participating in World Orca Day campaign actions aimed at restoring the Snake River, or through submitting public comment to Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee on their draft report centered around restoring critical Snake River salmon populations. In addition to Environment Washington’s own public comment submitted with Environment Oregon and Environment America, our national network helped generate more than 22,000 public comments from individuals in support of restoring a free-flowing Lower Snake River, alongside the tens of thousands of additional public comments that our coalition helped generate.

Each individual action- every voice- is a stream that when joined with others, grows in strength. Together, our voices become a powerful river- with force that can shape entire ecosystems, communities, and history. This growing movement to push back against the threat of extinction of salmon and orca- can overcome any obstacle- any dam, or the inertia of the status quo. Together, our actions will ensure the inevitable: these dams will be breached.

Update: On August 25, 2022, Washington’s Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray announced for the first time their commitment to finding a viable way to breach the Lower Snake River dams. Their recommendation on the dams stated that “extinction of salmon, orca, and other iconic species in the Pacific Northwest is categorically unacceptable to us”.  I am heartened that they’ve stated theyre committed to action to make dam breaching viable, and outlined the actions needed to replace the services provided by the dams in advance of breaching. 

This movement continues to swell, and we will not be dammed. 

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Pam Clough

Advocate, Environment Washington

As an advocate with Environment Washington, Pam develops and runs campaigns to protect Washington's air, water, and special places. She has worked on issues ranging from clean energy climate solutions, preventing plastic pollution, defending clean water, and protecting our special natural spaces. Pam lives in Steilacoom, Washington, where she enjoys kayaking on the Puget Sound, gardening and hiking in the surrounding mountains.

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