“Now what we need is a great big dam
To throw a lot of water out across that land
People could work and the stuff would grow
And you could wave goodbye to that old Skid Row”
Woody Guthrie, Washington Talkin’ Blues

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed his New Deal across the country, dams were politically correct. People attempting to scratch out a hardscrabble existence in small towns along the tributaries of the Columbia could see the difference that dams would make. It was that vision, coupled with a contract from the Bonneville Power Administration, which moved Woody Guthrie to write his songs promoting the construction of dams.

Many believed that the dams would cause the extinction of salmon, though most were prepared to run the risk for the benefits of dams. In 1937, as Bonneville Dam neared completion, reporter (and later Senator) Richard Neuberger wrote: “Prevalent throughout the principal salmon-producing region of the world today is the almost unshakable opinion that within a few years the fighting fish with the flaky flesh will be one and the same with the dodo birdžextinct.”1

In 1946, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed that the construction of McNary Dam would by itself eventually exterminate all upriver salmon.2 Today we have “scientific” panels presenting the same message. The unshakable opinions were wrong in 1937 and 1946 and they are wrong now.

Most widespread public beliefs about the specific impacts of dams are also wrong. Fishery agencies and environmentalists have successfully promoted the idea that the reservoirs behind the dams are “lethal slackwater pools”, full of predators that devour young salmon. But federal fishery scientists have found very little mortality in the Snake River reservoirs, and the highest rates of predation below Bonneville Dam. And while turbines cause some mortality, the vast majority of the salmon do not go through the turbines, so that survival through the dams and reservoirs as a whole is remarkably high.

Incredibly, no one has any empirical evidence to prove whether the mortality of salmon migrating up and down the Columbia River is higher now than before the dams were built. Early evidence from the 1970s did show significant mortality to salmon from the dams. But after many years of refining dam operations, mortality is far lower. There is some evidence that the total mortality rate now may be lower than in a natural river—a result achieved by averaging somewhat higher-than-natural mortality in the river with much higher-than-natural survival of transported fish.

The Mainstem Dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers

Prior to the 1930s, the Columbia and Snake were free-flowing rivers. In their natural state, they created significant flooding problems and rendered transportation of commercial goods virtually unfeasible. It was to solve these problems, and provide for hydropower, irrigated agriculture, and recreational benefits, that Congress authorized the construction of numerous dams to regulate water flow and produce electric power.

Eight mainstem dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers form the target of most salmon advocates. The first—Bonneville—was constructed in 1938 pursuant to the Bonneville Project Act of 1937 and earlier authority.3 The Act directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to operate and maintain the project subject to the powers and duties of the Bonneville Power Administration to sell and transmit electric energy.4 Congress further required the Corps to construct, operate, and maintain such additional hydropower facilities as the BPA Administrator deemed necessary to meet growing demands for federally-generated electricity.

Even after the construction of Bonneville Dam, the City of Portland remained vulnerable to devastating flooding from the Columbia River. In 1948, in a single hour on a sunny May afternoon, the Columbia River destroyed Vanport, which, with 20,000 people, was the second largest city in Oregon.5 And the flood levels then were well below the record levels of 1894.6 In February 1996, the river came within inches of flooding downtown Portland.

Few think (or at least publicly admit) that we should remove Bonneville Dam and the other upstream dams that have prevented disastrous floods. But environmentalists have begun to attack flood control efforts in earnest, drawing extensive media publicity by blaming flood control for killing salmon.7 The state and tribal salmon managers have begun to lobby against flood control as well; the first “system operational request” they made in 1997 was to object to attempts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the largest runoff in 60 years.8

The state of Idaho urged the Corps in March 1997 to “modify flood control rule curves” and maintain the “highest possible reservoir level by mid-April” at Dworshak Dam9—just when reservoir levels should be low to catch and control spring runoff. The year before, flooding caused extensive damage to property along the Clearwater River below the Dam.

Luckily, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is continuing flood control efforts (and privately regards the salmon managers’ requests as “incredible”), but there is no active lobby in favor of flood control. People take it for granted. I’m glad I don’t rely on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control, because unless things change, greater and greater risks will be taken with human lives and property, for unmeasurable and largely imaginary benefits for salmon.

Figure 6: Major Columbia Basin Hydroelectric Dams10
Following the completion of Bonneville Dam, the hydrosystem gradually expanded over the next several decades. McNary Dam was constructed in 1953, The Dalles in 1957, Ice Harbor in 1961, Lower Monumental and John Day in 1969, Little Goose in 1970, and Lower Granite in 1975. In the State of Washington, three public utility districts in Grant, Douglas, and Chelan counties spearheaded the development of hydroelectric projects along the Columbia River above its confluence with the Snake: Rock Island, Priest Rapids and Wanapum Dams. Until recently, these three projects have been less controversial because no endangered salmon migrate past them.
The mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams, along with Grand Coulee Dam, are the backbone of the Federal Columbia River Power System, which generates the low-cost power sold by the Bonneville Power Administration. Because the dams are not very high, river commerce and river species are easily passed over, under, or around mainstem dams. Every one of the mainstem dams was built with fish passage facilities.


R. Neuberger, Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 1937.

2 R. White, The Organic Machine 96.

3 16 U.S.C. §§ 832-832i

4 16 U.S.C. § 832.

5 R. White, The Organic Machine 74.

6 Id.

7 See, e.g., J. Brinckman, “Flood control actions draw criticism”, The Oregonian, Feb. 28, 1997.

8 R. Boyce, System Operational Request #97-1, Feb. 11, 1997, at 2 (Mr. Boyce, an employee of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is identified as “Chairperson, Salmon Managers”).

9 “Measures to Enhance Salmon and Steelhead Migration Success During 1997”, at 5 (Idaho Governor’s Office Mar. 25, 1997).

10 Picture from, with additional formatting courtesy Suzanne Iltis. This Website contains comprehensive data on these and other Columbia Basin hydroelectric projects.

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