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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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‘Free the Snake’ flotilla protests dams, threat to wild fish runs

RIVERS -- A "Free the Snake" flotilla of boaters launched on the Snake River Saturday calling for the removal of four dams on the lower Snake to help improve salmon and steelhead habitat. The rally was staged out of Clarkston.

The second annual event included more than 200 boats and some 350 protesters including members of the Nez Perce Tribe, sport fishermen, biologists, and others who believe dam removal is key to saving native, endangered salmon and steelhead.

"It was the most eclectic collection of watercraft I’ve every seen in one place on the water," said Sam Mace, Save Our Wild Salmon Inland Northwest director.

Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said fish numbers in Idaho began to drop even before the Snake River dams, when four dams were built on the Columbia River, according to the Public News Service.

"When they built the four lower Snake dams, the numbers then dropped below the point of self-sustaining," he told the Service. "So, you basically had crossed that tipping point of the fish being able to survive eight dams in each direction."

The groups want the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams to be removed. This summer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed fish ladders on two Snake River dams to try and help the fish. Last year, of the 250,000 Snake River sockeye that made the run, only about 40 made it to central Idaho.

Removing the dams would be "the single best action federal agencies can take to restore dwindling wild salmon populations in the Columbia and Snake rivers," said Mace. "Taking out the Snake River dams would boost the regional economy and re-open a pathway to more than 5,000 miles of high quality habitat for endangered wild salmon and steelhead."

Lewis said climate change is another factor in low fish numbers. Warmer temperatures have led to lower river flows, and dams create reservoirs where water tends to heat up. He said a federal judge recently ruled federal agencies need to reconsider dam removal as an option to save these fish.

"This judge issued a scathing opinion that the federal government had repeatedly failed to do enough, including taking dam-breaching off the table as not being an alternative when clearly, it needs to be an alternative," he said.

It would be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Lewis said the dams produce about three percent of the power on the Northwest grid, and that the region currently has a 15 percent energy surplus. But the Bonneville Power Administration said the dams play an important role at peak-demand times.

The flotilla is an effort to engage people in the upcoming public scoping hearings the federal agencies will be holding around the region—including in Spokane and Clarkston-Lewiston—to take input on the new EIS process they are beginning on the Columbia-Snake system, Mace said.

"We had expected the hearings to begin after the first of the year, esp. since the judge granted their request for more time.  We found out a few weeks ago that hearing could begin as early as October.  It’s frustrating that they are planning hearings during a crazy presidential election—and fishing season."

Free Snake River Flotilla - 2016 from Gary O. Grimm on Vimeo.

Here's an report from the scene by Elaine Williams of the Lewiston Tribune.

Nez Perce tribal member Gary Dorr encouraged participants in the second annual Free the Snake Flotilla to consider every pull of their paddles a prayer for the water.

His words came just before environmentalists launched about 100 mostly human-powered vessels Saturday from Swallows Park in Clarkston. They went downstream for three miles, just shy of the Interstate Bridge, before heading back in cool, sometimes rainy weather.

The flotilla included “Larry the Lonesome Salmon” a 20-foot-long, 15-foot-high replica of the only sockeye salmon that showed up at Red Fish Lake near Stanley, Idaho, in 1992, and a giant air-filled version of an orca, to show the importance that salmon play in the ecosystem. Orcas feed on salmon, among other things.

Backed by Save Our Wild Salmon, Patagonia, Idaho Rivers United and Friends of the Clearwater, the group drummed, sang, chanted and sometimes beat their paddles on the sides of their boats. They were told by organizers to be polite if they were harassed, but no conflicts arose with others on the river.

Their hope was to get the attention of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the highest elected official in Washington, a state that’s home to the four lower Snake River dams the group would like to have breached.

”We’re here to celebrate the inevitable removal of the dams,“ said Brett Haverstick, education and outreach director with Friends of the Clearwater. ”It’s not a question of if, but when.“

Their goal of seeing free-flowing water in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley is a stronger possibility than it was even 10 or 12 years ago as the political climate surrounding the issue evolves, said Rebecca Miles, executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Taxpayers are growing more open to the idea as they evaluate dams financially and identify some as ”deadbeat dams,“ Miles said.

Dorr and Miles weren’t the only ones rallying for salmon. Cynthia Purcell, an organic farmer from Entiat, Wash., drove about 41/2 hours to participate.

She hung a banner over her orange kayak. It had salmon cutouts that were red, white and black on one side, symbolizing the vitality they could have, and black and white on the other, acknowledging their diminished existence now. Slogans such as ”Let the Water Flow,“ ”Let the Salmon Grow,“ and ”Salmon Recovery Now!“ were interspersed among the fish.

”I feel the water and the salmon don’t have a voice,“ said Purcell, who kayaks every chance she gets in the summer. ”We have to be that voice. It’s like a S.O.S. call. Can you hear me?“

Kasey Koski of Wenatchee planned to carry a silk flag with salmon on it as she paddle-boarded. Saturday was part of her quest to encourage undoing obstructions on rivers. ”There are so many abuses of our water across the country right now.“

When dams were constructed, people felt as if they were doing something that was in their best interest, said Koski, curator of exhibits at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center.


Outdoors blog

Rich Landers writes and photographs stories and columns for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including Outdoors feature sections on Sunday and Thursday.

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