Storage Dams Impassable to Salmon

Grand Coulee Dam and the Hell's Canyon Complex, built by Idaho Power Company (Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hell’s Canyon Dams), are a different species of dam. They are so high that neither boats nor salmon can get through them, the better to store enormous quantities of water.

While the dams are now attacked as violations of nature, the engineers promoting the Grand Coulee project explained that “[t]he dam will accomplish intentionally the result achieved capriciously by the rampant natural forces of the Pleistocene period.”11 At that time, a sheet of ice blocked the Columbia River, which was running through a deep canyon. A huge lake formed, and the overflow from that lake carved a new channel fifty miles long at a 90 degree angle to the former River channel. When the ice dam melted, the River returned to its original course, leaving the new channel—the "Grand Coulee"—high and dry.

The huge natural pools carved during the ice age turned out to be ideal for storing water for irrigation, which could flow downhill to irrigate an area of land twice the size of Rhode Island: the Columbia Basin Project. The chief engineer of the Panama Canal, Major General George Goethals, touted the site in 1922 and proclaimed that development of the dam and Columbia Basin Project would add more to the national wealth of the United States than either the Panama Canal or the Alaskan Railroad.12 As Richard White wrote, the dam promoters believed that "[w]hat nature had so artfully arranged, it would be criminal for humans to neglect to improve and finish"—"[t]he dam was the final piece necessary to reveal nature’s latent harmony”.13

The Grand Coulee Dam would provide what was at the time the world's largest supply of electricity. Nevertheless, it was regarded at the time largely as an irrigation project. The United States Commissioner of Reclamation declared that the project would irrigate "the largest compact body of undeveloped land remaining in the United States and the most fertile".14

At the time, the Pacific Northwest was the destination of choice for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Dust Bowl, many of whom hoped to continue to farm, it being the only occupation they had ever known. In his weekly radio speeches, President Roosevelt encouraged these migrants. Others attacked them as “Okies”.

Now the descendants of the Okies are attacked as the recipients of federal subsidies. Their long-standing effort to expand the Columbia Basin Project seems doomed politically. But organizations like the Columbia Basin Development League soldier on.

The National Research Council has estimated that of the original salmon and steelhead habitat available in the Columbia River Basin, “55% of the area and 31% of the stream miles have been eliminated by dam construction”.15 The vast majority of these losses occurred from construction of Grand Coulee Dam and the Hell's Canyon Complex.

The Hell's Canyon Complex, constructed by Idaho Power Company, eliminated all remaining anadromous fish production in the upper Snake River Basin, including sockeye, spring/summer, and fall chinook salmon, in 1967.16 This was especially offensive to fishery interests because Idaho Power Company’s federal license to build the dam required passage for salmon.17 No such promises were made when Grand Coulee was built. It eliminated the famed Kettle Falls fishery and all remnants of many upriver runs.

Environmentalists view the Columbia River and its tributaries as a giant living tree, with dead branches above Grand Coulee and Hell's Canyon. But what few people realize is that those branches were diseased even before the dams were built.18 And runs "were sustained or even increased over the ensuing 40 years" after construction of Grand Coulee Dam through the use of hatcheries.19 While the hatcheries could not get salmon past Grand Coulee and the Hell’s Canyon Complex, they could keep large runs going in the rivers below the dams.

Despite much talk of dam removal, there is little talk of removing either Grand Coulee or the Hell’s Canyon Complex, even though they are the only large dams with indisputedly negative effects on salmon. Idaho environmentalists, who are among the most rabid opponents of the four lower Snake River dams, have long turned a blind eye to water projects in their own state. In 1996, Fred Nampa, president of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, boasted that an average user’s annual power bill from Idaho Power Company was $703, and of that amount “only $1.23 came from the socialized power of the four lower Snake River dams. This $1.23 seems to be a small price to pay in order to save our salmon and steelhead populations.”20 He didn't discuss the power that came from the Hell’s Canyon Complex.

11 Carl Magnusson, quoting in R. White, The Organic Machine 37.

12 Reported in Neuberger, R., Our Promised Land 67 (MacMillan 1938)

13 R. White, The Organic Machine 57.

14 Quoted in Neuberger, R., Our Promised Land 63 (MacMillan 1938)

15 NRC, Upstream at 53 (Prepub. ed.).

16 Snake River Salmon Recovery Team: Final Recommendation to the National Marine Fisheries Service at II-8 (1994) [hereinafter Recovery Plan]); Northwest Power Planning Council, Strategy for Salmon, Vol. I at 28, 33 (1992) [hereinafter Strategy for Salmon].

17 T. Palmer, The Snake River 189.

18 For example, ODFW fish biologist Kurt Beiningen wrote in the early 1970s that "While erection of Grand Coulee Dam locked out a large portion of habitat in the upper Columbia, it is doubtful that the project alone was the cause of the demise of upriver stocks. Even prior to the construction of Rock Island Dam in 1933, observers reported that substantial depletions of stocks indigenous to tributaries above and below Grand Coulee had already occurred.".

19 Id.

20 F. Christensen, “Hydropower isn’t the cheapest, and it causes a lot of problems”, The Idaho Statesman, Aug. 1, 1996. Mr. Christensen, woefully ignorant of nearly every fact about which he writes, goes so far as to claim that wind power is cheaper than hydropower.

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