Today in Idaho River History: Idaho Statesman launches 'An argument for breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River'

By Deena Merrill, IRU intern

Nineteen years ago this month, The Idaho Statesman helped nudge the conversation about wild salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest toward lower Snake River dam removal. 

On July 20, 1997, the Statesman launched a three-part, eight-page package of editorials that included graphs, timelines, maps, photos and facts discussing the pitfalls of the lower Snake River dams. The paper’s conclusion: removing the four dams made economic sense and would help restore endangered wild salmon.

“The Statesman was right. They were right then, and they’re still right,” said IRU Board Member Tom Stuart, who has spent 20 years working for wild salmon recovery in Idaho. “This piece is a significant example of in-depth investigative reporting showing that Idaho has the most to gain and the most to lose.”

The ambitious editorial package, published over three consecutive days, was researched by Statesman reporter Rocky Barker and written by editorial writer Susan Whaley. The team dug deep into the numbers and invited experts to discuss the benefits and shortcomings of the four lower Snake River dams. 

Titled “Dollars, Sense & Salmon: An Argument for Breaching the Four Dams on the Lower Snake River,” the editorial report addressed issues 19 years ago that are as or more relevant today than they were then.

“This carried a little bit of political risk in Idaho,” Stuart said. “Removing dams had really not begun to happen at that time like it has now.”

The first installment, “A clear solution,” set the stage with basic biology, history and a great deal of economics. Similar to recent reports commissioned by IRU and its allies, the Statesman cited a net annual benefit of $183 million should the lower Snake River dams be removed.

“Four dams in Washington are holding Idaho’s economy hostage,” the Statesman wrote. The dams on the lower Snake were designed first to create a navigable river channel and second to produce electricity. 

Graphic by The Idaho Statesman.

“But now these dams are a burden on Idaho and the Northwest,” the Statesman concluded. And, if anything, the numbers have only tipped farther toward dam removal in the ensuing 19 years.

The second installment, “Back to the future,” was specific to salmon biology and lifecycle in the context of dams and discussed issues including angling, business, tribal fishing and Idaho’s abundant and protected public land.

“Northwest residents 35 years ago wanted it all—hydropower and fish—just as residents do today,” the Statesman wrote. “The good news is that we still can have both. But first the limits of technology must be recognized. The best hope in the 1990s is to breach the Lower Snake River dams and return the river to what existed before the dams were built.”

Sunbeam Dam near Stanley, built in 1910 and blown up in 1934, was cited as an example of how dam removal immediately helps salmon. Sunbeam was built to provide electricity for mining in the upper Salmon basin, but it completely decimated the upper basin’s sockeye salmon and severely impacted chinook salmon and steelhead populations. After the dam was removed salmon populations increased sharply and reached a peak of 4,361 sockeye spawning in Redfish Lake before the first of eight dams were built on the Columbia and Snake rivers. 

The final installment, “We need to start now,” drove home the immediacy of the problem and offered ideas about how to work through the political thicket that has now thwarted progress for more than 20 years.  

“The 20th century was not kind to salmon and steelhead,” the Statesman wrote. “As a new century approaches, it is possible to see a way out of this fiscal and environmental disaster.”

Now in 2016, a full 19 years after the Statesman published its forward-thinking package of editorials, a historic opportunity is dawning. In May a federal judge in Portland ordered the government to write a new environmental study that weighs a range of alternatives, including lower Snake River dam removal. That process will unfold in the coming months, and citizens of the Pacific Northwest will be imperative to making it succeed for Idaho and Idaho’s endangered wild salmon.

In the meantime, we can look back to the Statesman’s cutting-edge work that helped lead the region toward more serious discussions about the legitimacy of dam removal.

“It is a significant example of in depth investigative reporting that isn’t common in a newspaper of this size,” Stewart said. “This really was unusual and was a salute to the reporters, supervisors and editorial team at the time who made it happen."