Elwha dam removals offer lessons for the Snake

This weekend Americans will celebrate the long-awaited removal of two outdated salmon-killing dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Removal of these dams constitutes the largest dam removal project the world has seen and promises to restore one of America’s great salmon fisheries.

Here in Idaho there are things we can learn from the Elwha, and we must. It will teach us about the science, engineering, economic and community-related lessons that can be applied to other rivers. While every river’s restoration is unique, we have learned from prior efforts. And the current dam removals on the Elwha will no doubt shape restoration efforts yet to come.

Importantly, the Elwha dam removals are the result of a carefully thought out collaborative process, and that is exactly what’s needed in the Snake River Basin, where salmon have been on the brink of extinction for decades and government recovery plans have failed to do enough for the fish.

For Idaho’s salmon, the science is clear: four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state are the most significant impediment to survival. Following a strong court ruling on Aug. 2 from federal District Judge James Redden that called for the federal government to look more closely at dam removal as an option for recovering upper Snake River basin salmon, it’s time to begin a similar collaborative process that will benefit our salmon, our culture and our economy.

It’s long been said that restoring wild salmon to the upper Snake River Basin—where there’s more intact spawning habitat than anywhere on Earth—is not a biological challenge; it’s a social one.

There is cause for celebration on the Elwha River this month, but the valuable lessons we learn can be carried forward to turning the Snake River into a similar and broadly-supported success story.

In 2009, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, offered a potential roadmap toward resolution. Perhaps the best way to move forward, the senator suggested, is to bring salmon stakeholders together — conservationists, fishermen, tribes, power producers, barging and transportation interests, farmers, irrigators and the states — to hammer out a solution.

The time for a stakeholder solutions table is here. The region can ill-afford the economic uncertainty caused by the continual courtroom merry-go-round. And our salmon can’t afford another decade of legal wrangling, either.