Four dams that are blamed for damaging salmon runs on the lower Snake River in Washington place the waterway third among the nation’s most endangered rivers, according to an annual report by American Rivers.
The conservation group on Tuesday said the Sacramento and San Joaquin river system in California topped this year’s list.
Environmental groups for years have sought the removal of the four dams on the Snake as the only way to restore the salmon. They contend the dams and the slackwater reservoirs they create are hostile to the migrating fish.
Dam supporters cite other factors in the decline of salmon runs.
Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the middle of the last century. The dams are along the Snake in southeastern Washington from near Pullman to the Tri-Cities.
The Bush administration supported the dams, but environmentalists are hoping the Obama administration will seek removal.
“Taking out the four lower Snake River dams and giving an endangered river a much-needed chance to recover is smart business,” Paul Fish, head of Mountain Gear, an outdoor retail company based in Spokane, said in the American Rivers report.
“A restored Snake River will mean abundant salmon, more outdoor recreation and fishing opportunities, and more jobs for the Northwest,” he said. “The Obama administration has an opportunity to transform an endangered Snake River into a working Snake River.”
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., a staunch supporter of the dams, said both salmon and the dams can be saved.
“The citizens of the Northwest overwhelmingly oppose tearing out the four Snake River Dams,” Hastings said recently. “We can recover fish runs and protect our dams.”
The dams generate electricity and provide irrigation water. The reservoirs behind them allow barges filled with grain and fuel to travel up and down the Snake and Columbia rivers, rather than by truck on highways.
“It’s time we again stand up and speak out against dam removal as an extreme action that won’t help fish but will increase energy prices, hurt our economy and cost us jobs,” Hastings said.
Every year, the four dams kill as many as 90 percent of juvenile salmon and steelhead that migrate downstream to the ocean, American Rivers said. All the river’s salmon runs are either threatened with extinction or already extinct.
The organization chooses its most endangered rivers from nominations made by environmental groups and considers the value of each river to people and the environment, the level of the threat it faces and pending decisions that could affect it in the next year.
Rivers from Pennsylvania to Alaska also made this year’s list. Rounding out the top five were Georgia’s Flint River, Mattawoman Creek in Maryland and the North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana.
Columbia Basin salmon returns have historically been the West Coast’s largest. They numbered 10 million to 30 million per year, but overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and dam construction over the past century caused the numbers to dwindle.
Dozens of populations have gone extinct, and 13 are listed as threatened or endangered species, making it necessary for federal projects such as the hydroelectric system to show they can be operated without harming them. The last three plans for balancing salmon and dams, known as biological opinions, failed to pass legal muster and the issue is bogged down in courts.