Snake River Dams
A multi-purpose system balancing economic benefits and environmental protection for the entire Pacific Northwest
Powering our region
The four lower Snake River dams can generate enough electricity to power the entire city of Seattle. They are particularly valuable in times of extreme hot and cold weather, when demand for electricity peaks.
Hydropower also provides the always available, quickly responsive “foundation” for more intermittent sources of power, filling in the gaps when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing.
Feeding the world
The Columbia Snake River System is the top wheat export gateway in the United States, moving about half the nation’s wheat to world markets. Barging on the Snake River is a big part of that. Over 3.9 million tons of cargo was barged on the Snake River in 2019.
Although small compared to the giant Columbia Basin Project upriver on the mainstem Columbia, the lower Snake River also plays an important irrigation role, watering over 60,000 acres of farmland in Central and Southeastern Washington that produce dozens of different varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains.
Supporting our economy and lifestyle
The Snake River dams also support a thriving recreation and tourism industry. Over 25,000 cruise passengers visited the Lewis Clark Valley alone in 2018, contributing over $15 million to communities on the river system.
Easy river access, hundreds of miles of languid lakes, and water-based recreation are also part of the outdoor-adventure wonderland that have attracted and retained so many residents to the region.
Protecting our environment
Clean, renewable power contributes to our region’s drive for net-zero carbon emissions. The lower Snake River dams’ powerhouses save over 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere each year. If the dams were breached or removed, it would take several coal- or gas-fired power plants to replace them.
Barging is the most efficient and environmentally friendly transportation mode, and the Snake River keeps over 380 full-sized trains or 150,000 semi-trucks off the rails and roads each year. Removing barging as a transportation option would increase diesel fuel consumption by nearly 5 million gallons each year, adding carbon emissions equal to those generated by a Boardman coal-fired power plant every 5-6 years.
Salmon runs have been affected by a variety of factors. A commitment to improving all four of the “H’s” of salmon recovery – hydro, habitat, harvest, and hatcheries – is necessary for listed species to recover. Extreme measures like dam breaching have been studied and rejected numerous times over the last twenty years.
Fish runs in the Columbia Basin, including on the Snake River, have improved greatly in the past two decades. The historic collaboration of federal agencies, Northwest tribes, states, and countless stakeholders is resulting in important progress for runs that previously were thought on the path to extinction.
Improvements at the dams, such as turbine upgrades, fish “slides” and bypass systems, help our salmon travel safely downriver to the ocean as juveniles, then return upriver to spawn as adults. Overall, juvenile salmon survive passage of each of the eight hydropower projects, including the four Snake River dams, at a whopping 97%.
But what about the orcas?
Most Pacific Ocean transient orcas are thriving, but three pods of Southern Resident Killer Whales that spend most of their time in Puget Sound have hovered at low numbers for decades. NOAA Fisheries designated them as an endangered species in 2005.
No science links the recovery of these three pods to a single activity in a single part of the region. Rather, NOAA Fisheries has highlighted multiple threats to the species, and also outlined the many different Chinook stocks important to these orcas – particularly those in Puget Sound.
NOAA Fisheries also released a 2016 fact sheet about the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ diet, and why breaching the Snake River dams is not a reasonable or effective solution for their recovery. With adult salmon returns at or near record highs for most of our listed runs, NOAA finds that removing the Snake River dams would have negligible impact on Southern Resident killer whale populations.
We all benefit from a river system that:
- Waters our farms
- Ships our goods
- Generates our low-carbon power
- Supports our economies
It’s what makes our region strong and balanced – and we all must protect it as federal agencies prepare a new plan for operating the river system. We need all voices to be heard so decisionmakers understand your perspective on fish passage, shipping, power, irrigation, and more.