Human Journey

Breach the Snake River Dams

By Kenneth Balcomb, guest essayist

Note: In this guest essay, long-time killer whale researcher Ken Balcomb shows how obsolete but still salmon-killing dams are helping cause the decline of killer whales due to food shortage in the Northwest. The dams do feed us one thing: propaganda. As Ken wrote to me, “I was flabbergasted that the dams are closed to photography, and that their wasteful secret is downplayed in the mainstream propaganda fed to the public.” For more on the dams, see my book Song for the Blue Ocean. For more on Ken and the whales he has spent his life loving and studying, see my soon-to-be-released book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, which will hit bookstores on July 14. — Carl Safina

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb, photo by Carl Safina

I have studied the majestic southern resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest for forty years (approximately one productive lifespan – whale or human), during which time much has been learned and shared with the world about this iconic endangered population. They are now arguably the best known whales in the world! But, that was not always the case. The common response in the 1960‘s and 1970‘s to my announcement that I was studying whales was, “Why?” “What good are they?”

My best response was to point out that as top marine predators whales are indicators of the health of that environment in which they live – the ocean – and that is also an environment upon which humans depend. Now, with growing numbers of people appreciating the whales’ natural role in the marine environment, and better understanding their ecological requirement for specific food—Chinook salmon in this case—to survive, the conversation has moved toward a strategy of how best to provide that food. There is currently an active discussion about removal of the Snake River dams to save fish, or whales. The issue of whether dams should be breached to provide this food for the whales has now arrived. Would that be reasonable? Are we sure that will work?

killer whale feeding
Killer whale with salmon, photo by Ken Balcomb

I don’t consider this lightly. I tend to consider the status quo of institutions and structures to be enduring and worthy of protection, even if only as displays of the truly amazing feats our species has achieved in the course of human evolution and ingenuity. Not all of our feats have been without unforeseen consequence, however; and, most tend to crumble over time anyway. Dams require maintenance, and they eventually fill with sediment.

Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature. And it still seems to be counter to our government’s intent. This is in spite of clear evidence that the salmon-eating population of “killer” whales that I am studying is on a path to extinction along with significant populations of their main food resource—Chinook salmon—huge numbers of which formerly spawned and returned to the Snake River, and fed whales in the Pacific Ocean and humans, before the dams were built.

I had to see for myself what was going on in the Snake River watershed currently. So last week my brother and I drove up the highway to visit the dams on the Columbia River and upstream, sightseeing and taking photos and videos along the way and learning about the current passage of remnant populations of salmon.

But when we got to the McNary and Ice Harbor dams just below the Snake River and on it, it seemed as if an iron curtain had come down and we were prevented from taking any photographs, or even carrying cameras and cell phones behind the fences surrounding the dam structures. It was as if something was being hidden from view. And, it was. There was no point in our continuing upstream to Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams to take photographs and videos of fish passage, because that was not allowed.

Lower Monumental Dam, Snake River
Lower Monumental Dam, Snake River, Photo: USACE

In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of Chinook salmon. And, they now doom all technological attempts to bolster these salmon populations to expensive failure.

Even many of the Army Corps of Engineers’ internal documents recommend that returning the river to natural or normative conditions may be the only recovery scenario for Snake River fall Chinook salmon, and it will also benefit other salmon populations.

You and I are paying for this economic and ecological blemish with our tax dollars spent to maintain structures and negative return on investment in power generation, “barge” transportation, and recreation. The question I would now ask is “Why?” and “What good are they?”

Killer Whales off San Juan Island
Killer whales off San Juan Island, Photo by Carl Safina

Removal can be done inexpensively and doing so makes perfect ecological sense. The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. There are no fixes for the deadly lakes behind the dams. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved southern resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of Chinook salmon upon which they depend. There are only about eighty of these whales now remaining (including juveniles and post-reproductive animals), down from nearly 100 two decades ago and down from 87 when they were listed as “Endangered” in 2005.

If you really want to have healthy ecosystems with salmon and whales in the Pacific Northwest future, and save tax/rate payer money at the same time, please contact or mail your thoughts to your elected representatives in support of a Presidential mandate to begin the return of the Snake River ecosystem to natural or normative conditions by the end of the current presidential administration. The time is now!

When they are gone it will be forever. Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!


Ken Balcomb, 11 June 2015

Senior Scientist, Center for Whale Research

Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Richelle Beck

    How disappointing it is when a scientist falls prey to ideology, as is evident here since the science isn’t there to support his views. Here are the facts from the unbiased scientists working on this issue:

    • The Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) hatchery production supplies enough chinook salmon for Orca survival. In 2010, NMFS confirmed that even with all sources of mortality to Chinook (including natural mortality and poor chinook years), the numbers exceeded what the Orca’s needed to survive. (It’s not as if the whales sense the difference between a hatchery and wild fish.)

    • The environmental groups claim that Snake River chinook declines are the main reason for the Orca decline, citing NOAA’s SRKW Recovery Plan that recognizes a possible linkage between Columbia Basin Chinook and the orcas’ decline. The truth is the Recovery Plan linkage is speculative and not based on a rigorous scientific study. The environmentalists are inaccurately characterizing NOAA’s Orca recovery plan to align with their own dam removal agenda.

    • Historical distribution of the Orcas is not entirely understood, and even to this day, scientists see no pattern to the Orca’s movement along the west coast that suggests their main source of salmon comes from the Snake River. They go where the food availability is best, with little regard to where the food sources originated.

    As for the dams being obsolete, Balcomb is way off base. These dams are heavily relied on for the power needs of NW citizens and businesses. Removal would mean either blackouts/brownouts during heavy load periods, or substantial power production increases in C02-emitting power plants. Until clean, reliable technology is available to replace the power the Snake River dams produce, those dams should not be breached. Why else would BPA, the Corps, and the region’s electric utilities (particularly those that are non-profit) care so much about keeping those dams in place? They have nothing to gain by not breaching those dams. They are the true experts who understand the power impacts of removing them.

    • The comment’s writer works for something slyly called Northwest River Partners (.org, no less!), which is totally invested in business as usual and (as you can see from their website) talks about salmon but cares only about, well, business as usual. As a .org, you’d guess that their “partners” include not-for-profit groups. “How disappointing” indeed. “Ideology?” No; Ken wouldn’t care about the dams if they weren’t responsible for salmon declines. And as explained to me in even more detail, his conservative nature makes him reluctant to advocate the destruction of anything—even the dams. He’s advocating that now because he understands their effect on salmon. And because he sees killer whales stressed for their food. And because the Columbia dams ruined the greatest salmon runs on Earth. But Northwest River Partners’ entire rationale for existence is to be advocates for the dams. That is their built-in bias, and it is effectively impossible that they could ever agree that the dams’ should be removed, despite the many studies showing that it makes sense to remove them. It is impossible for Northwest River Partners to see the dams in an unbiased way because, well, here are just the first few partners, all locked devoutly into making money from the dams yet all posing through this org as salmon-lovers:
      Alcoa Inc.
      Asotin County PUD
      Associated Oregon Industries
      Association of Washington Business
      Avista Corporation
      Benton PUD
      Benton Rural Electric Association
      Big Bend Electric Cooperative
      Bonners Ferry, City of
      Burley, City of
      Cascade Locks
      Central Electric Cooperative, Inc.
      ETC ETC ETC….

  • Scott Herning

    President Obama was recently asked if he would support putting forth an Executive Order to breach the four lower Snake River Dams. The President was receptive and said that this is something that he could do during his term. Please call or write the President. Tell him that you support his decision to remove these dams to save the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction. Sign the petition and find more information at

  • Alison Jones, Dir of No Water No LIfe

    Hi Ken, I’ve spent 8 years documenting the Columbia River Basin and the last year focused on these Lower 4 Snake River Dams. I’ve interviewed several spokespersons in the Patagonia “DamNation” film, met with Save our Wild Salmon folk, etc. I would like to chat with you about the biggest hurdle I see in the way of their removal – how wheat currently being barged can be moved alternatively, since most RR cars are taken up with oil transport and there aren’t enough unit train facilities to accommodate all the wheat…. Would like to hear from you!

  • Adam Ü

    Has Richelle seen the tag data showing L84 (this year) and K25 (2013) spending large amounts of time off the mouth of the Columbia? Presumably that’s “where food availability is best” during the winter/spring since that’s where so many of the SRKW are spending such a large portion of their time. That would mean that Columbia (and presumably what’s left of Snake) Chinook are pretty important to them.

    Link to the tag data from NWFSC:

  • Alex

    take down those dams!!!

  • Kevin Lewis

    “Northwest River Partners” is relentless in its campaign to support these deadbeat dams. The lower Snake dams produce less that 4% of the northwest generation and has already been replaced many times over by renewables. The Pacific Northwest is overflowing with surplus power and any claim of brownouts and blackouts is nothing more than fear mongering.

  • Howard Garrett

    Richelle Beck’s letter is helpful by listing the best arguments available for keeping the dams, presenting the most compelling ideology currently circulating to keep the slackwater reservoirs in place. Each of the objections have been answered adequately but raising them is itself a political act to reinforce business as usual.
    • Hatchery production on a scale that could provide sufficient Chinook biomass for SR orcas would decimate wild salmon populations by predation and competition. Wild salmon don’t just feed orcas, they feed whole watershed ecosystems, and provide income for local residents. Hatchery production can’t ever be self-sustaining and need massive continual investment. Hatcheries have been producing for a long time and the orcas have been starving intermittently for decades.
    • An abundance of scientific evidence shows that Snake River Chinook declines are the main reason for the Orca decline, not just the language in the Recovery Plan. Fecal and scale samples, acoustic data, sat tag tracks, and good ol common sense tell us the largest watershed (the Snake) in the largest basin (Columbia) on the west coast would be the largest source of Chinook historically. Every other habitat restoration effort is needed and is working to help salmon spawn and recover, but the removal of those four dams would do more than any other single measure, in a shorter time frame.
    • The historical range of the Southern Residents is not hard to piece together, according to their current range and the historical carrying capacity of their accustomed range. Recent sat tag, acoustic data and field studies have confirmed that SRs tend to cluster around the mouth of the Columbia River. Not surprising.
    • Detailed transition plans need to be developed of course but the broad brush solutions to power generation. Regional wind power alone already doubles hydro production on the Snake, with solar coming up fast. No blackouts or brownouts will be needed. Clean, reliable technology is available.
    • BPA, the Corps, and the region’s electric utilities are the ones who sold the idea of building the dams when it was well known they would decimate salmon and weren’t really needed, so they are not likely to say they were mistaken at this point.
    Balcomb has nothing to gain by advocating the removal of the four lower Snake River dams, except the health and survival of the population of orcas he has devoted his life to studying.

  • Bryan Jones

    Ken, Thank you for your thoughts. I have long suspected Puget Sound must be a haven for salmon coming from the Snake and Columbia Rivers. And in being that haven they too have once again given themselves up as a food source for the Orca.
    I live near the Snake, and manage a small peach orchard on the Snake. I barge my wheat on the Snake River and on to the Columbia and overseas markets. I have studied the issues surrounding the Snake River, salmon, barge traffic, and the difficult issues tangled around them all for many years now.
    The easy answer is to remove dams. They give us the best chance of saving one major artery for salmon in the U. S. Where push comes to shove, is the barging of wheat. How would anyone solve the problem of shipping millions of tons of wheat if not for barges? The blockage created by tens of thousands of trucks on the roadways would never be practical. The infrastructure needed to remedy the shipment of wheat seems extremely expensive. Rail must be the answer. Being conservative in nature, as you state, the idea of spending the many millions to provide the infrastructure necessary gives anyone pause. It would be so much easier and oblivious of the facts to keep those old dams maintained. Just keep plugging our tax dollars into an old system for decades and decades. That is why we put the dams there in the first place to replace an old system.
    I believe if we take in to account the huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars which ever direction, to maintain or free a river and the benefits gained we will be far be better off in the long view to remove those dams. Agriculture must be accounted for as well. Shipping grain will be maintained. Give farmers options and we do not care how our grain gets to market as long as it works for the many wheat growers who currently rely on barging to ship their wheat.
    Thank you for you time. Bryan Jones

  • Richelle Beck

    First of all, wind and solar cannot replace the output from those dams until we have the ability to store that power for a later use – large scale. Wind and Solar aren’t reliable, hydropower is. So when we get a week or two temperatures below freezing, and the wind isn’t blowing, those dams are what we use to meet peak loads during those events. The utilities would either need to shut down power until wind or sun picks up, or buy it on the market for big bucks.

    Second, the arguments by Adam and Howard still don’t make any sense. Of course the Orcas will hang out at the Columbia River mouth where there are tons of salmon – Snake and Columbia BOTH. It wasn’t me that says there are more salmon in the ocean now than before the dams were built. That is NOAA Fisheries. Most scientists working on this issue do not buy into this idea the Orcas soley eat this one ESU of salmon. They hang out at many river mouths during salmon migration seasons.

    Third, this point: “BPA, the Corps, and the region’s electric utilities are the ones who sold the idea of building the dams when it was well known they would decimate salmon and weren’t really needed, so they are not likely to say they were mistaken at this point.” is not true. The salmon runs were already decimated from over fishing before these dams were even put in place. In those days, everyone thought the hatcheries would save the day. Turns out they were wrong, but at the time they didn’t know that. And the Snake Dams were needed then and are still needed today. This isn’t about someone not wanting to admit they were wrong, this about finding a balance between hydropower and salmon until we are able to replace the dams’ power output with a RELIABLE and clean source.

    Fourth, my organization, NW RiverPartners, does have a bias in support of the dams. This bias is well founded. Our goal is for balance because right now, this region still needs those dams. We have spent billions to make sure the fish are surviving past those dams, and that spending is paying off. Large numbers of salmon and steelhead are passing those dams safely both downstream and upstream. We work with the electric utilities who are experts on power needs for their customers. They are not for profit, so the only thing they have to gain is quieter public meetings when they don’t have to raise rates. Unfortunately, dam removal would without a doubt mean tremendous rate increases in rural counties with high poverty levels.

    Fifth, yes you can ship goods by train or truck instead of barging, but that puts a considerable amount of C02 emissions into the air. Barge is BY FAR the cheapest, least C02 emitting form of transport we have. It’s part of why our air is so much cleaner here than other parts of the Country.

    As I said above, NW RiverPartners is all about balance. I am a huge salmon lover and a protector of our wildlife. I consider myself to be a conservationist on many issues. But when experts tell me that we cannot remove those dams without huge consequences, I believe them, and everyone else should too. And when we invest billions into making those dams safe for passage, we should at least wait and see if those investments pay off (which we think they are), rather than removing them before the region is equipped to handle that change. If dams and salmon can coexist, that is a win win for everyone (well, expect the Kayak and rafting groups who want the Snake River rapids back).

  • Adam Ü

    Richelle: I’m not sure why you don’t understand my “argument”. The tag data shows some SRKW spending large portions of the winter and spring off the mouth of the Columbia. I don’t think anyone has said that the SRKW ONLY eat Snake/Columbia salmon (for instance, summer predation seems to be heavily based on Fraser River salmon), but does seem pretty clear from tag and the limited scale samples that in the winter and spring they’re focused on what’s coming out of the greater Columbia watershed.

    Can you provide a source for your claim that NOAA Fisheries says there are more salmon in the ocean now than before the dams were built? That seems to be the opposite of what’s stated in the NMFS Recovery Plan for SRKW (and supporting references).
    (see section II-71 onwards, especially Table 7)

  • Richelle Beck

    NOAA’s statement is made in the 2014 Biological Opinion. You can find it at

    It’s just a far reach to say that removal of those dams will bring back the Orcas. Especially when the fish seem to be passing them successfully these days, thanks to all the improvements that have been made. Again, the electric utilities in the region who purchase power from BPA have no hidden agenda here. They simply want to keep the lights on and the rates as low a possible for their customers. They are the experts on whether the output from these dams can easily and inexpensively be replaced, not fishery biologists.

  • Barbara Hamlet

    I have read both sides of the arguments. I strongly agree that without the Dams the Orcas and the wild salmon would be better off. And the people around that area would be better off. Please take those Dams down.

  • Richelle Beck

    Here you go:

    Section 5.2.1 discusses the issue extensively. Here is a clip taken directly from NOAA’s findings: Prey Quantity
    While previous research correlated coastwide reductions in Chinook abundance (Alaska,
    British Columbia, and Washington) with decreased survival of resident whales from the
    Northern and Southern Resident DPSs (Ford et al. 2009), changes in killer whale abundance
    have not been definitively linked to prey changes in specific areas or to changes in numbers of
    specific Chinook stocks. Recent review (Ward et al. 2009; Ford et al. 2010) of current work
    on the correlation of Chinook abundance to survival of killer whales notes that,
    “…considerable caution is warranted in interpreting results as confirming a linear causative
    relationship between Chinook salmon abundance and Southern Resident survival (Hilborn et
    al. 2012).”

    The entire section is a good read to understand what the current science says on the Orca’s preferred food choice of chinook salmon.

    And I apparently misstated that NOAA said there are more fish now than before the dams were built. I did not say that in my original comment, but I did say it in my second one – quoting myself on something I didn’t say. I should have been paying more attention to my words.

    What NOAA does say is that there are plenty of food options for the Orcas to survive.

    The “before the dams were built” point was from another issue discussing the Columbia River. There are more salmon in the Columbia now than before the dams were built. In the early 1900s, the entire salmon population was severely depressed due to over fishing. Everyone thought hatcheries would be the answer but almost a century later, we are realizing they were wrong.

  • Bert Brehm

    “The lower Snake River dams could also be replaced with alternatives without creating negative economic consequences; for some options, as shown in Figure
    S.2, their replacement could produce positive net employment in the region. Finally, investing in enough energy efficiency to equal the demand of the DSIs
    could result in positive economic impacts, potentially adding from 0.3 to 0.6 percent to the gross regional product by 2020.”
    -excerpted from this report from the RAND Corporation:

    Generating Electric Power in the Pacific Northwest
    Implications of Alternative Technologies
    Christopher G. Pernin, Mark A. Bernstein, Andrea
    Mejia, Howard Shih, Fred Rueter, Wilbur Steger

  • Stephen J. Oder

    Ms. Beck appears to have a conflict of interest. How expedient it is to ignore facts that do not support the argument proffered.
    Following some of the referenced links we find a comment stating “we need to build a bigger pie.” Any actual scientist understands that the size of the pie is fixed, that humans are demanding more from the planet than she can deliver, and until this demand is reduced to a sustainable level, nothing will have a lasting effect. It is insulting to discover the obvious untruths in her argument. Remove these dams.

  • Hollie R Longieliere

    a little late to this dam party. Any updated news on whats going on? The orcas NEED these dams to be breached. We need to restore the salmon, the rivers, the oceans….

  • Brian Huntoon

    I would recommend changing the discussion terminology and title of articles to “Remove the Dams”. Most people don’t know what “breach” means. I didn’t. After googling it, I never found a straightforward answer to what “breach a dam” means. Almost all entries centered around dam failure due to environmental events or structural failures. I figured out what Ken means by finding the word “removal” later in an article. The Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon campaign was very clear: “Remove these dams!” I would recommend the Snake River dam removal campaign do the same. Most people are not going to read an article or phrase or watch a 15 second spot on a ferry boat and then spend a lot of time trying to figure out what “breach a dam” means. If you want to communicate a message to politicians, clearly communicate it to the people. “Remove the dams”. Thanks!

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