The most endangered river in the country, long known for its salmon runs, is in the Pacific Northwest, and is an existential threat to tribes that depend on the fish for their cultures and identities.

The Snake River flows through Idaho, Washington and Oregon and four federal dams are its biggest threat, according to American Rivers, which lists the river as the most endangered of 2021 in its annual report. Tribal leaders have asked President Joe Biden and Congress to remove the dams to help restore salmon runs.

Washington Environmental Council CEO Alyssa Macy, from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said salmon numbers in the lower Snake River “are getting close to extinction.”

"Salmon is not just important to the tribes along the Columbia River and the Snake River,” Macy told Indian Country Today’s newscast. Salmon is “so important to tribes throughout this entire region, all the way up to Alaska, all the way down to California as part of our identity, as part of our subsistence.”

Alyssa Macy

In a letter to the Biden administration and to members of Congress from Idaho, Oregon and Washington, the members of the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance called the potential extinction of the salmon a “moral failure of the highest order.”

Northwest Republicans generally oppose removing the dams, saying they are economic engines for the region and that it makes little sense to abandon a source of hydroelectric power in an age of climate change. Furthermore, they argue, there’s no guarantee removing them would save the fish.

Earlier this year, Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson called for spending $33 billion to breach four dams and to replace the transportation, irrigation and power generation the dams provide.

The letter was signed by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Lummi Nation, Makah Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, The Tulalip Tribes and Yakama Nation.

“Salmon are inseparable from who we are,” they wrote. “Even as our ancestors’ lives and homelands were threatened, they made sure to protect within the treaties our ancestral salmon lifeway. Those treaties were promises made by the United States government. Those promises must be kept.”

Conservationists say that since construction on the dams was completed in the 1970s, wild Snake River salmon populations have plummeted by more than 90 percent.

In the past two decades, $17 billion in improvements to the dams have done little to help fish, which are largely cut off from thousands of miles of spawning habitat upstream. The dams slow the water, causing it to heat up to levels that can kill the fish and forcing juvenile salmon to swim harder and to become more exposed to predators on their journey to the ocean.

The plan calls for the removal of the Lower Granite Dam near Colfax in 2030, with removal of three other dams — Ice Harbor, Little Goose and Lower Monumental — in 2031. The dams were built in the 1950s and 1960s to provide power and irrigation and to make navigable a portion of the Snake River from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco in Washington, and downriver to Pacific Ocean ports.

Scientists say that without removal of the dams to restore a free-flowing river and improve access to high-quality spawning habitat in Idaho, the salmon face extinction, according to American Rivers

“Rivers are among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet, and threats to rivers are threats to human health, safety and survival,” Tom Kiernan, president and CEO of American Rivers, said in a statement. “If we want a future of clean water and healthy rivers everywhere, for everyone, we must prioritize environmental justice.”

American Rivers’ list of most endangered rivers and threats:

  • 1: Snake River (Idaho, Washington, Oregon)
  • Threat: Four federal dams on the lower Snake River
  • 2: Lower Missouri River (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas)
  • Threat: Outdated river management and flooding fueled by climate change
  • 3: Boundary Waters (Minnesota)
  • Threat: Pollution from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining
  • 4: South River (Georgia)
  • Threat: Sewage pollution due to lax enforcement
  • 5: Pecos River (New Mexico)
  • Threat: Pollution from proposed gold, copper and zinc mining
  • 6: Tar Creek (Oklahoma)
  • Threat: Pollution from Tar Creek Superfund Site
  • 7: McCloud River (California)
  • Threat: Raising of Shasta Dam, flooding state Wild and Scenic River
  • 8: Ipswich River (Massachusetts)
  • Threat: Excessive water withdrawals
  • 9: Raccoon River (Iowa)
  • Threat: Pollution from industrial agriculture and factory farming
  • 10: Turkey Creek (Mississippi)
  • Threat: Two major developments exacerbating flood risk
Indian Country Today - bridge logo

The Associated Press contributed to this report