Snake River is most endangered in the country: Inside the fight to save it

At the center of the issue is the declining salmon population.

When you are in the Snake River, you can be in two states -- Idaho and Oregon -- at once. You can find yourself in magical places that are sacred to the Nez Perce Tribe, surrounded by ancient petroglyphs. In some areas, the water plunges so deep beneath the canyon rim that it outdoes the Grand Canyon by nearly 2,000 feet.

To say it simply, it’s majestic. And like many rivers in the United States, it's in peril.

The Snake River is the most endangered river in the United States in 2021, according to American Rivers, which has put out a list every year for 36 years.

At the center of the issue is salmon, which "have never been closer to extinction than they are today,” said Amy Souers Kober, vice president for communications at conservation group American Rivers.

Many see it as a crisis, and one that can be solved -- but while salmon are at the heart of the problem, it goes even deeper than that.

The salmon

In the 1880s, it was estimated that between 25,000 and 35,000 sockeye would make the 900-mile journey up the river and back to Idaho to spawn each year.

In 1992, a single, solitary sockeye was able to make the trip, according to National Geographic. He was known as Lonesome Larry.

The salmon population has since rebounded, but not to levels anywhere near what the Snake River previously saw.

“I’m raising children in this region. And I would like more than anything for my children to see these fish returned in solid numbers,” Mark Deming, a local Idaho fisherman and director of marketing at Northwest River Supplies, said. "When people don’t come to fish, then the cash registers aren’t ringing, and that’s had a pretty big economic impact."

Fishing generates more than $5 billion annually in the Pacific Northwest, supporting more than 36,000 jobs, according to American Rivers.

Salmon are vital to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and essential to the livelihood of more than 130 other forms of wildlife, according to biologists.

They are also a crucial part of the Nez Perce culture. The Nez Perce story states that the salmon gave of himself so that the Nimiipuu could thrive. In return, they would protect the land. The tribe, which has inhabited the area for centuries, is said to have saved explorers Lewis and Clark from freezing and starving to death.

“Salmon is more than a resource to us ... [it] signifies our creation, our life and our continued life on this land,” Nakia Williamson, director of the Nez Perce Tribe culture resources program, said.

The tribe has had to resort to using hatcheries and transplanting salmon to keep the population growing.

Salmon have been dying at a rapid rate over the last 10 years. If that continues, nearly 80% of salmon populations could come mostly from hatcheries by 2025, "and some even before that,” said Jay Hesse, the Nez Perce Tribe department of fisheries resource management research division director.

The dams

The Nez Perce Tribe says the four dams located on the lower part of the Snake River are impeding the salmon’s migration route.

“What these dams do is make it more difficult for fish to reach their spawning grounds," Deming said. "So when you’re thinking about climate change, you have to think about getting these fish up to high elevation, cold, clear mountain streams where they can spawn."

In years past, wildlife officials have created “fish passages'' at the lower four dams, and conservation groups say that is helping. Still, salmon continue dying on that journey, and few survive getting through the dams to the ocean in the first place.

“A trip that took approximately two days before the dams were constructed now takes 10 to 30 days, during which 50% of the juvenile spring/summer chinook and 45% of the juvenile steelhead typically die,” Hesse said.

Climate change is making this all the more urgent. The river and the pools behind the Lower Snake dams are heating up, creating lethal conditions for salmon. Removing those dams would “create the refuge that salmon need in a warming world,” Kober said.

As things are now, the dams are vital to the region. They provide enough power to keep the lights on in 800,000 homes in an efficient -- and what some say is an environmentally friendly -- way.

That calm, glassy water also makes it easy and cost effective to ship goods. The Snake River winds through 5 million acres of farmland in Southeast Washington alone, and 10% of the entire country’s wheat crop is sent on a barge down the Snake River.

“We are feeding the world ... are you going to put human lives over fish?" asked Tom Kammerzell, a 5th generation farmer who lives in Whitman County, the largest wheat producing county in the United States. "It’s not an either or, there’s a way of doing it together and having both, but you have to look at all of the pieces.”

Kammerzell estimates he would lose all his profits if the dams were breached and he was forced to ship by rail or truck, which he argues is not just more costly but could be worse for the climate as well.

Todd Myers, who sits on the board of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, said removing the dams would be “foolish and costly,” adding that the fall chinook salmon runs on the Snake River are actually nearing recovery in Washington, and the steelhead are recovering as well. He notes that the spring chinook are in crisis, but so are many other salmon runs across the Pacific Northwest.

“I think it’s ironic to single out the Snake, it’s one of very few places where (the salmon) are doing well,” Myers said.

He didn't disagree that help is needed, but he emphasized that help is needed everywhere and removing the dams would contribute to an already problematic energy shortfall.

“Destroying the dams would be like removing every wind turbine and solar panel in Washington state," he argued. "Destroying that much CO2-free electricity and increasing the possibility of Texas-style blackouts is an enormous risk."

A proposed solution

Currently, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson wants to have $33.5 billion from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan earmarked to save the Snake River. His plan includes removing the earthen part of the dams to clear the waterways, replacing the energy produced at the dams and upgrading transportation and irrigation services the dams provide, hoping to make the communities the river serves, like the farmers, whole until they can supplement shipping methods.

“By creating this fund up front, the Northwest delegation, governors, tribes and stakeholders could then write legislation over the next year that will end the lawsuits, solve very difficult and complex issues and bring certainty and security for now and future generations,” Simpson told ABC News.

But that kind of additional spending in one place is viewed as “irresponsible” by many, including Myers.

“Washington state spends about $100 million annually on salmon recovery," he said. "The federal government provides about $40 million a year on top of that.”

Myers added that a vast majority of the salmon declines are in the “marine environment." Warmer ocean waters have salmon struggling across the region, a much larger problem that needs to be addressed.

Salmon have been in the world's waters for an estimated 4 to 6 million years. To see the numbers diminish and possibly disappear because of human intervention is something people on both sides of this issue agree must be addressed. But the argument over exactly how and exactly how quickly remains.

“Through science, technology and experience, we should be able to correct those things to help them, and so we're here to speak for them,” Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, said. “If the salmon are gone, that's the way we go, too.”

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