The Hidden Cost of Hydropower

The Copco No. 1 Dam on the Klamath River is one of four hydroelectric dams scheduled for removal to restore 400 miles of salmon habitat in southeastern Oregon and northern California. The dams contribute to the vast reduction in salmon available to the Tribes who for centuries relied on the abundance of fish. (Photo credit: Anna Murveit/Klamath River Restoration Commission)


The narrative surrounding our region’s hydroelectric power often includes the words “renewable,” “cheap,” and “green.” And as climate scientists continue to sound the alarm about the climate emergency and the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the need for green power generation is clearly critical. In such a context, the hydroelectric dam-building craze of the last century seems almost prescient, even if the dams were built before the climate emergency was common knowledge. Beyond the need for power generation, the wild Columbia River was a river that needed to be tamed—at least in the eyes of the settler-colonists, who envisioned its transformation into a navigable waterway. Today nearly 500 dams in the Columbia River Basin tame its current for commerce, generate hydroelectric power, provide flood control and store water for irrigation.

A major problem with all that dam building: no one consulted with the Indigenous peoples who have been living in the region since time immemorial, and whose subsistence and cultural practices were steeped in the abundance of salmon. The sad reality, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, is that systemic racism enabled the development of hydropower and contributed to the decimation of salmon runs. In the mid-1800s Indigenous Tribes of the Pacific Northwest signed treaties with the U.S. government ceding land in exchange for preserving the right to fish as they always had, to sustain their centuries-long subsistence and culture. At the time damming the Columbia River and its tributaries weren’t part of the plan.

In a 2017 article in the American Indiana Law Journal, Derek Red Arrow Frank describes how the damming craze of the last century constitutes systemic racism, and how the hydropower relicensing regime violates Tribal treaty rights. Frank, an enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, illustrates how the U.S. government systematically reduced the Tribe’s once sprawling 70-million acre territory to a mere 750,000 acres. In return, the U.S. government guaranteed the Tribe absolute fishing rights at all of their “usual and accustomed places,” which included parts of the Columbia and Snake rivers. Frank focuses on the Hells Canyon Complex, a three-dam hydroelectric project in Idaho that eliminated wild runs of spring Chinook and steelhead populations from historical runs of 18,000 to less than a hundred by 1971. And, notably, Frank illustrates how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the flexibility to “wholly disregard a Tribe’s recommendations” when determining if a hydroelectric project may be licensed.

Hydropower for Seattle, at a Tribe’s expense

Seattle City Light (SCL) operates three hydroelectric dams—the Ross, Diablo, and Gorge—on the Skagit River, which is named for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe that has lived along the river for thousands of years. The dams generate approximately twenty percent of SCL’s power, but also block fish passage. Now the Tribe is calling for SCL to remove the Gorge Dam so salmon can migrate farther upriver. In a recent interview, Tribal member Scott Schuyler said: “The river has been stolen from us. It has been harvested for money. Our people are a fishing people, a salmon people. The salmon are disappearing and it’s hurting our people.”

The Gorge Dam site in 1919. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorizes hydropower projects, and licenses can be issued for up to a fifty-year term. The Gorge Dam license expires in 2025, and Seattle City Light is in the process of seeking a renewal. (Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives, shared under a Creative Commons license)


Central among the debate whether to remove the Gorge Dam is the fate of endangered Puget Sound salmon and steelhead populations. The utility claims natural barriers have historically blocked salmon passage even before reaching the location of the Gorge Dam, but according to a recent investigative report by Seattle’s KING-TV, the National Marine Fisheries Service says that is not the case. The KING-TV report also found that SCL’s website until this past January presented twenty-year-old glowing messages “touting the utility’s stewardship that led to strong and landmark returns of salmon.” Last month SCL announced it would expand its fish passage study on all three of its Skagit River dams.

Fish passage and the Lower Snake River dams

While numerous variables affect salmon abundance, among the constants are aggressive mitigation efforts—such as installing or improving fish ladders to enhance passage around dams, or cooling systems to keep temperatures below lethal levels—and the existence of dams throughout the Columbia River Basin. But although federal efforts to restore salmon habitat in the region have cost taxpayers $17 billion, Chinook salmon and twelve other species remain listed as endangered, and the last five restoration plans have been found “inadequate and illegal,” according to Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. With costly mitigation measures failing, breaching the four Lower Snake River dams, once a partisan issue, is gaining bipartisan momentum. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) recently introduced a $33.5 billion proposal to remove the dams. The four dams were built between 1962 and 1981, and maintenance and repair costs are increasing and outweigh the cost of removing them, with the total net benefits of removing the dam estimated to be $8.65 billion.

While removing those dams doesn’t guarantee the instant return of salmon runs to historical levels, removing barriers to fish passage reopens lost habitat to which fish can and will return. After two fish-blocking dams were removed on the Elwha River in 2014, salmon and trout have been observed far upstream. Just last year, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe found larger-than-expected coho smolts, according to the Columbia Basin Bulletin. And after dams on the Patapsco River in Maryland were removed, marine biologists discovered an alewife—a type of river herring—that had migrated upriver from the Atlantic Ocean, something not possible in the hundred years of the dams’ existence. Fish are returning to the place where they once thrived, prior to when the dams were built.

Once useful, dams are increasingly obsolete

Last month, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report concluded that wind and solar power generation now is “the best economic choice” where demand is growing, and lithium-ion battery storage systems are competitive “with many peak-demand generators.” Proponents of hydropower cite peak demand as one of its strengths, to deliver power when solar or wind is unavailable. Hydropower is considered a green energy alternative to coal-powered power plants because the dams don’t burn fossil fuels to generate power. However, a 2016 study found hydroelectric dams emit a billion tons of greenhouse gases a year—about 1.3 percent of human-caused global emissions. Behind every great dam is a great reservoir, and it’s at the bottom of those reservoirs where methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is produced and ultimately released into the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures.

The two Elwha River hydroelectric dams once powered the pulp mill industry in Port Angeles and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, but over time the need for their power decreased to the extent they were no longer necessary. The fact they also blocked some eighty percent of upriver habitat from salmon and other species sparked additional calls for their removal, culminating in the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Now an even larger dam removal project is moving forward in the Klamath River Basin.

Celilo Falls, or Wy-am, was a significant traditional fishing spot on the Columbia River that was flooded in 1957 when the Dalles Dam went into operation. The abundance of salmon harvested here by fishers who were secured by rope safety lines supported a vast trade with Tribes from the Great Lakes, Southwest, and Northwest Coast. (Photo credit: Matheny Photo Collection, courtesy Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission)


The Klamath River, which flows from southern Oregon into northern California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, also was a victim of the hydropower crush of the last century, with a series of dams now blocking 400 miles of salmon habitat. The salmon runs once were the third largest in the nation, providing subsistence for the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath Tribes. In the documentaryGuardians of the River,” Yurok tribal member Sammy Gensaw explains how, before the dams, the Tribe was able to fish year-round due to the abundance of salmon. However, fishing now is restricted to once a year, with fishers lucky to catch one fish per person. “The river is our lifeblood,” Gensaw says. “It’s just as important as the air we breathe.”

In contrast to the federal government’s disregard for Tribes when the dams were erected, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation—a consortium that includes Tribal members—is finalizing a plan to remove four hydroelectric dams, which will be the largest dam removal project in history, and restore the 400 miles of salmon habitat cut off by the dams.

In his book, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia, Blaine Harden notes that in 1805 there were three times as many salmon swimming up the river as there were people living in the U.S. (16 million salmon versus 6 million people). Today, salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin are a fraction of what they were during the pre-dam era, and numerous salmon and steelhead runs remain endangered, even after decades of effort and billions of dollars spent to revive them. Yet hydropower remains a large part of Washington’s power generation.

Energy usage by source in Washington for 2018. The 2019 Washington Clean Energy Transformation Act mandates eliminating coal power by 2025 and having 100 percent of the state’s electricity come from clean energy sources by 2045. (Image credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration, State Energy Data System)

Before the hydroelectric development on the Columbia and Snake rivers, Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) used eighty-two percent of the riverine habitat. Since dam construction—and notably the Hells Canyon Dam, which blocks access to the upper reaches of the Snake River—the salmon are restricted to just thirty-one percent of the habitat, a reduction of 250 miles.** Although some of the dams provide fish passage through fish ladders, reservoirs created by those dams flooded Indigenous peoples’ traditional fishing grounds, further restricting areas for subsistence fishing.

One such place along the Columbia River was Celilo Falls, or Wy-am. The waterfalls there proved to be an excellent spot to catch salmon, providing ample subsistence for centuries to Indigenous peoples. Wy-am also was one of the longest occupied sites in North America, and became a critical trade marketplace that attracted Tribes from thousands of miles away, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Commission. In 2019, the Yakama and Lummi nations called for the removal of three large dams on the lower Columbia River to help restore the historic salmon runs.

Economically, ecologically, and culturally, hydroelectric generation has come at a cost. The Indigenous peoples who once enjoyed an abundance of salmon are robbed not only of that abundance, but also of some of their traditional fishing grounds. The Tribes had no say when the dams were constructed and are guaranteed no say when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers relicensing the dams. However, Tribes are at the forefront advocating for their removal, and to return the Columbia and Snake and Klamath rivers to their natural state, when salmon and steelhead were abundant. As Gensaw of the Yurok Tribe says in “Guardians of the River”—“Without salmon, our way of life is impossible.”

** For access to journal articles cited in this piece that are not publicly available, contact Currents’ editor-in-chief:

Dauble, D.D., Hanrahan, T.P., Geist, D.R., & Parsley, M.J. (2011). Impacts of the Columbia River hydroelectric system on main-stem habitats of fall Chinook salmon. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 23(3), 641-659. doi: 10.1577/M02-013