by Pacific Northwest Waterways Association

  • The Columbia Snake River System is a 465-mile river highway that provides farmers and other producers as far as the Midwest access to international markets.1
  • The Snake River experienced a 60% increase in cargo movement from 2011 to 2014.2
  • 4,361,000 tons of cargo were barged on the Snake River in 2014. It would have taken 43,610 rail cars to carry this cargo, or over 167,000 semi-trucks.3
  • Tonnage on the Snake River increased
  • Barging is the most efficient and environmentally friendly method for moving cargo.4
  • Barging depends on the navigation locks at the Snake River dams for access to the federally maintained channel.
  • The Columbia Snake River System is a unified transportation network providing local and national benefits. The 18 deep water and inland ports handle marine commerce serving over 40 states.
  • Barging disciplines rail and trucking costs, ensuring that the price of moving goods in the Pacific Northwest remains competitive.5
  • A typical four-barge tow moves the same amount of cargo as 140 rail cars or 538 trucks.6


  • The Columbia Snake River System is the top wheat export gateway in the United States.7
  • The Snake River dams and navigation locks allow inland farmers access to international markets.
  • In 2014, nearly 10% of all U.S. wheat exports moved through the Snake River dams (9.5%)8,9
  • It would take at least 137,000 semi-trucks or 23,900 railcars to transport the wheat which moves by barge on the Snake River.10
  • Over half of the wheat barged on the river is locked through one or more of the Snake River dams.11
  • The primary wheat crop grown in the Northwest, soft white wheat, is a highly sought after product worldwide and the Pacific Northwest grows the best in the world.
  • Over $500 million has been invested into Columbia River grain export terminals, and barge unloading capacity has been expanded by over 21% in expectation of increased sales in Asian markets. The current rail capacity in the Pacific Northwest is insufficient to meet current as well as projected wheat transportation needs, and barging remains the most efficient way to move wheat to the export terminals.12
  • Over 50% of Idaho’s wheat is exported through the Columbia Snake River System. 13


  • The total output of the Snake Rivers Dams is 3033 MW, which is enough energy to power 1.87
    million homes. This output is also a vital aspect of the wind power grid. Since the wind does not
    blow constantly, the energy output of the dams can be increased or decreased by hundreds of
    megawatts in a few seconds to match the variability of the wind.14
  • According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, removal of the Snake River dams
    would increase “the carbon emissions, cost, and risk of the power system. […] Small increases in
    conservation and renewable resources occur in this scenario, but the primary replacement of the
    dams is provided by changes in the construction of new gas-fired generating plants, changes in the
    operation of existing and new generating plants, and changes in net exports. Existing natural gasfired
    and coal-fired generation is used more intensively.”15
  • BPA reports the cost per year of removing of the Snake River Dams would range from $444 million
    to $837 million a year. This number is dependent on whether the dams are replaced by natural gas
    powered plants or by a combination of wind and gas plants.16
  • The total cost to breach the dams $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion according to BPA and the U.S. Army
    Corps of Engineers while the cost to replace the critical winter energy provided by the four dams
    would be in excess of $7 billion.17
  • The dams also work in concert with current renewables, particularly wind and solar, to balance the
    load through the grid when renewables are not producing.
  • In 2013, hydropower produced 58% of the Northwest’s energy profile while renewables were only
    6% of the mix. Another 15% was coal and 17% was natural gas.
  • It would take 2 nuclear plants, 3 coal fired plants, or 6 natural gas plants to replace the Snake River dams.

Fish and the Environment

  • 2014 continued a 20-year trend of record breaking salmon returns past the Snake River dams.
    Major improvements in fish ladders, dam design, optimized river flow, and habitat restoration (all
    paid for by revenues from the Snake and Columbia River dams) have resulted in consistent
    improvements to salmon returns. 2014 saw the best year in history for salmon returns.18
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent $800 million in fish passage improvements on the dams
    on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This has increased downstream salmon migration survival rates
    to 1960 levels, before the Snake River dams were constructed.19
  • Juvenile fish survival rates past the eight federal dams were between 95% and 98% in 2014.20
  • Between 2002 and 2011, average wild Chinook salmon populations have more than tripled, and
    average wild steelhead populations have doubled.21
  • The time it takes fish to pass through the dams is also the quickest it has been since the dams were
    installed, and continues to decrease with each new improvement.22
  • The Snake River dams do not block access for fish, as was the case with the Condit, Elwha, and
    Glines Canyon dams. The Snake River dams have state of the art fish passage which allows over 97%
    of juvenile salmon to safely migrate past each of the dams.
  • NOAA Fisheries – responsible for protection of listed salmon – says that survival rates through the
    hydro system are now approaching levels seen in rivers without dams.
  • In 2014, over 2.5 million adult salmon and steelhead passed Bonneville Dam, setting new overall
    record levels since counts began in 1938. Of the fish returning in 2014, the sockeye, fall chinook, and
    coho were record or near-record runs, including the Snake River stocks.
  • There are now more fish in the river than at any point since 1938, when the first dam, Bonneville,
    was put in and populations continue to increase.
  • The level of collaboration on the river system is at an all-time high. Cooperation between the
    federal agencies, the States of Washington, Idaho and Montana, and sovereign tribes is producing
    real results for listed fish runs. The only entities who are left as the plaintiffs in the FCRPS BiOp
    lawsuit are the environmental groups, the Nez Perce tribe, and the State of Oregon.
  • The Obama administration took a hard look at the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS)
    Biological Opinion (BiOp) after taking office in 2009. The administration put their scientific and
    political stamp of approval on the plan in 2010, which includes the current approach to the Snake
    River dams. The administration added particular triggers, like studying dam breaching, if particular
    fish runs start to decline. The Obama administration recognizes that breaching the Snake River
    dams is an extreme and risky measure, and one only to be pursued if current actions are not
    working. Rather than declining, most runs are instead showing record results.
  • 2015 adult returns past McNary dam are the highest returns recorded since the dam was completed
    in 1957.

Orcas (Killer Whales)

  • The Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population is currently estimated at about 80 whales, a
    decline from its estimated historical level of about 200 during the late 1800s. Beginning in the late
    1960s, the live-capture fishery for oceanarium display removed an estimated 47 whales and caused
    an immediate decline in Southern Resident numbers. The population fell an estimated 30% to about
    67 whales by 1971. By 2003, the population increased to 83 whales. Due to its small population size,
    this segment of the population was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in
    2005 and designated critical habitat in 2006.23
    (Note: “live capture fishery” = orcas were driven into nets in Puget Sound, and hauled to aquariums.
    Washington became the first state in the nation to stop this practice in the mid-1970’s, but not
    before SRKW population was reduced by one third)
  • Over the last 28 years there has been an average 0.4 percent increase per year for the population. In
    1982 there were 78 whales and in 2010 86 whales were counted in the summer census.24
  • Fraser River Chinook salmon make up the bulk of the whales’ summer diet while they are in the
    Salish Sea. They also consume Chinook from the Columbia, Sacramento, Klamath, and other coastal
    river systems.25
  • Their range during the spring, summer, and fall includes the inland waterways of Washington state
    and the transboundary waters between the United States and Canada. Relatively little is known
    about the winter movements and range of the Southern Resident stock. However, in recent years,
    they have been regularly spotted as far south as central California during the winter months and as
    far north as Southeast Alaska, through our Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s satellite tagging


  • Methane production in water occurs naturally, but requires a specific environment that doesn’t exist
    in the Snake River reservoirs.
  • Methane is produced in bodies of still, warm water that support high levels of dense water
    vegetation. Deep bodies of water with a large difference between surface and bottom temperature
    are also necessary. When the vegetation dies and sinks to the bottom of the reservoir its
    decomposition can reduce the oxygen in the water. This is known as an “anoxic” environment and
    will produce methane.
  • Vegetation and algae growth in the Snake River reservoirs in not high enough to produce the
    necessary plant matter for decomposition because the water is not warm enough to support either
    large growth or the necessary decomposition environment.
  • While it may not seem fast to casual observers, the current through each reservoir is more than
    enough to mix the water, circulate oxygen and prevent a large temperature gradient from forming.
  • Because the Snake River dams do not form large, still, deep reservoirs, they produce very little

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