The debate over removing the four dams on the lower Snake River has simmered for decades.  In July, the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest (ECONW) issued a new independent analysis funded by the philanthropic arm of the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. on the benefits and costs of restoring the river. In spite of Vulcan’s reputation for funding unbiased scientific inquiry, the reaction to the study by the dams’ proponents was furious. US Reps. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-Spokane) and Dan Newhouse (R-Yakima) stoked east-west divisions, labeling the report “another example of Seattle-based interests seeking to disrupt our way of life in Central and Eastern Washington.” The Tri-City Herald’s verdict on the highly researched, lengthy technical report was that it “belongs in the trash.”

Fishers and tribal members in Eastern Washington and Idaho would thrill to see increased salmon runs on the Snake River while Seattleites concerned with climate change fear giving up a gigawatt of carbon-free electricity.


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Notwithstanding the bombast from those defending the dams, reasonable people on both sides of the Cascades divide over the question of whether to keep or remove them. Fishers and tribal members in Eastern Washington and Idaho would thrill to see increased salmon runs on the Snake River while Seattleites concerned with climate change fear giving up a gigawatt of carbon-free electricity. Many people (including some Sightline readers) who care about fish and climate don’t know what to think about the dams. 

In this four-part series, I break down the key findings from the ECONW report so those with an open mind can consider how breaching the dams could affect fish, carbon-free electricity, agriculture, and jobs. In this first article, I address how, by reflecting salmons’ cultural importance to people, hard-headed economic analysis favors removing the dams. The second article speaks to the dams’ fast-fading cost advantage for producing carbon-free power given rapid declines in the costs of wind and solar power.  In the third piece, I address the impact of breaching the dams on agriculture and what it would cost to hold farmers harmless from the changes. The final article looks at how breaching the dams would affect jobs around the Snake River basin and the potential for increased employment from the river restoration project and new visitors attracted to a free-flowing river. ECONW concluded that we would be better off without the dams. See if you agree.

Congress and Bonneville to decide fate of lower Snake River dams

For five decades, the four dams on the lower Snake River have provided water for irrigation, emissions-free hydroelectricity, and 140 miles of flat water for barge passage from Pasco, Washington, to Lewiston, Idaho. They also submerged 63 rapids big enough to have earned themselves names and increased the mortality of salmon smolts heading downstream and adults returning upstream to spawn. Five species of Snake River salmon are now threatened or endangered. Recent declines in the health of the southern resident orcas have brought new voices to longstanding calls to breach the dams and restore the river to a more natural condition.

Under court order, the US Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) will issue an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 2020 and the Bonneville Power Administration (Bonneville) will make a decision on whether to remove Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams as part of a systemwide review of the operations of the Columbia River hydro system. Restoring the lower Snake River by removing the four dams that block its flow would precipitate changes in the region’s physical infrastructure, electric grid operations, carbon emissions, grain transport, irrigation, recreation, fish habitat, and riverine and marine ecosystems. Large public enterprises including Bonneville and the Corps would change how they do business. Free-flowing water on the lower Snake River would eliminate some jobs and create others. 

Economists, goes the old cannard, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” ECONW tried in its study for Vulcan to quantify prices and values, and quantifying the values turns out to make all the difference. By carefully tabulating costs and benefits for all the aspects of the dam dilemma that are easily monetized—forgone electricity production, the costs of breaching the dams, the costs of new diversions for irrigation—ECONW finds the dams are better left in place. But ECONW went further, seeking to put dollar values on the intangible value of the Snake River’s once mighty salmon runs.

Salmon, most Northwesterners believe, are more than just fish. They’re icons of the place. Consider: in spite of the many obstacles in their path—from natural hazards like sea lions to man-made barriers like dams—salmon still spawn in the fresh waters of Idaho in the vast tributary system of the Snake River. Their fertilized eggs grow into fry that travel hundreds of miles down the Snake River through the Columbia and into the Pacific Ocean. On their way, some are eaten by marine mammals, including the endangered orcas. The largest of the salmon—the Chinook—live in the saltwater of the Pacific for up to seven years before retracing their route back to the streams where their lives started, to spawn and die, their flesh left to fertilize the streams in which their offspring will renew the cycle.

This cycle of life is perhaps Cascadia’s defining cultural story and allegory, reflected in Native mythology, enacted in seasonal fisheries and feasts, immortalized in the region’s literature and art, and taught to school children across the region. For many Northwesterners, salmon are the needle and thread that bind their place together: ocean and coast, rain forest valleys and grassy plains, swift streams and snowy mountains.  

But how could ECONW reflect this widely held but intangible value in dollars and cents? Since the early 1990s, leading economists have endorsed a set of analytic tools for determining the economic value of natural features when market prices don’t exist. Courts, states, and US federal agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation have used these techniques to assess changes in non-use values including for the environmental assessments of removing of the Klamath River dams in 2012.

But the Corps has not kept up with the times. The agency’s handbook for conducting studies like the one underway for the Columbia River system counts the “use-values” of salmon as a source of recreation or food but ignores the “non-use-values” or intrinsic value of salmon as a viable species. By leaving out the largest category of benefits of breaching, the Corps’s study will almost certainly conclude that the dams should remain. 

When Congress revamped the management of the Columbia River hydrosystem in 1980, the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act enshrined into law salmon’s importance to the region with a purpose statement that includes: “to protect, mitigate and enhance the fish and wildlife, including related spawning grounds and habitat, of the Columbia River and its tributaries, particularly anadromous fish which are of significant importance to the social and economic well-being of the Pacific Northwest and the Nation.”

Since the Act’s passage in 1980, Bonneville has spent $16.4 billion on its fish and wildlife program, including $450 million in 2017 for measures including barging juvenile fish around dams, spilling water over the dams to help salmon make the trip downriver, and capital improvements to steer fish away from the dams’ turbines. For the endangered salmon in the Snake River, these programs cost $72 million in 2016.  

And yet for all this spending, salmon runs continue to decline. In 2017, the returns of adult Chinook and Sockeye salmon were well below their 10-year average and a fraction of their historic levels. In August of 2019, fewer than two dozen of the red-bodied sockeye that give Redfish Lake in Idaho its name had made the return journey.

Dams are not the only factors working against fish. Human and non-human predators, climate change, and other dams challenge salmon recovery too. But the Corps, which operates the dams, determined in 2002 that removing the lower Snake dams would increase the chances of salmon recovering by 50 percent.

  • Breaching the dams and restoring a river system with white water and gravel beaches would increase the spawning habitat for Chinook salmon and reduce barriers at the beginning and end of the salmon life cycle. A natural river system would improve fish passage, decrease the migration time for juvenile salmon, and substantially increase the spawning habitat for Chinook in the main stem of the Snake River. These changes would likely increase the populations of endangered fish and reduce the risk of extinction. Healthy fish populations would increase the food supply for endangered orcas. It could also make unnecessary the Corps’ current program of killing sea lions, seals, and birds to protect stressed fish from these predators.

    We cannot know for certain that salmon will recover, given other stressors.  So the question is what are people willing to pay to increase the odds of recovery of endangered salmon even if they don’t eat or fish for them?

    ECONW evaluated three prior studies on people’s willingness to pay to improve the odds for salmon survival and found that survey research indicates people were willing to pay, on average, between $34 and $46 per household per year to “reduce extinction risk,” “recover,” or “protect” wild salmon. ECONW applied this range of values to a population of West Coast states plus Idaho and Montana and came up with a figure of $11 billion for the value today of helping the salmon on the Snake River. Should non-use values extend to households beyond the five-state region to the nationwide US population, the values would be approximately 6.5 times larger. If non-US people count, the number would go higher still.

    One critic of the ECONorthwest study found fault with the wording of one question in the survey sponsored by the Save Our Wild Salmon advocacy group and the application of willingness to pay research to households in California, arguing that people in San Diego don’t care about wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest. But even if you toss out the challenged survey and use the other two study results and you also assume that only Northwest households care about the fate of salmon, then the intrinsic benefits of aiding wild salmon recovery still exceed the costs of taking out the dams. 

    The same critic claimed the study would “steer.. money away from projects that would meaningfully improve salmon habitat and populations.” ECONW was not tasked with ranking the cost-effectiveness of every potential protection and recovery measure in all the salmon ecosystems in the Pacific basin. No doubt other measures in other locations might provide more bang for the buck. But funds don’t move easily across jurisdictions, watersheds, and national boundaries. A federal judge ordered Bonneville to make a plan to address declining salmon populations in the Columbia River system and to include removal of the Snake River dams as one measure for consideration.

    The best available biological and social science indicate that the Corps should breach the dams and restore the river so salmon have the chance to thrive.

    Next time: Snake River dams no longer produce the least expensive electricity.

    Note: Daniel Malarkey served as a consultant to ECONorthwest for its study of the lower Snake River dams.