Salmon-Saving Efforts of Dam Builders Fell Short


When the crusade for more power in the growing Northwest produced the colossal Hells Canyon hydro-dam system a generation ago, preservation of the region’s salmon runs was little more than an afterthought.

“In those days, it wasn’t as big an issue,” said Monte Richards, retired Idaho Fish and Game regional fisheries manager. “People had been building dams for years, but there wasn’t that much information about their effects.”

The fact is, developers had to rely on untested theories about how the fish would continue making the 900-mile migration between their Idaho spawning beds and the Pacific Ocean.


At the same time, the pressure to generate electricity drowned out the concerns of fishery experts that the runs would never survive the concrete chokehold that was tightening on the Snake River.

“The political pressure of the day was overwhelming,” said Steve Huffaker, fisheries bureau chief for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “The only thing the fish folks could do was get mitigation, and it didn’t work.”

When Idaho Power Co. won permission to build the complex of Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams in 1955, the Federal Power Commission required it to ship migrating fish around Brownlee, the first of the three to be completed.

At 395 feet high, the dam could not use a salmon ladder, so the experts called for an untested plastic “skimmer” net to be strung across the reservoir to catch the young fish and deposit them downstream.

“That was the theory,” said Jim Bruce, former Idaho Power chairman and a company attorney when Brownlee was built. “The problem is, the small fish didn’t make it downstream to the net. There wasn’t enough of a current and they got lost in the reservoir.”

The $6-million net system was scrapped in 1962, in effect writing off fish migrations to the Boise, Payette and Weiser Rivers.


For Oxbow, completed in 1961, the experts turned to a cement fish trap that was to enable migrating salmon to get past the dam.

But in what was nicknamed “The Oxbow Incident,” the trap failed and thousands of fish died in the splash pool below the dam. By the time Hells Canyon Dam was finished in 1968, prospects for migration above it had disappeared.

“I think that above Hells Canyon, it’s a lost cause,” Huffaker said. “We don’t have the technology to collect the little fish going down and there’s a lot of habitat degradation. I think that’s history.”

To counter that effect, Idaho Power paid for salmon and steelhead hatcheries at Oxbow, Rapid River above Riggins and Niagara Springs near Buhl.

Ed Chaney of the Northwest Resource Information Center in Eagle said biologists in the late 1950s and early 1960s “were up against what has been the curse of the fish”--proving that the dams were not properly designed to preserve the runs.

Today’s debate over Gov. Cecil Andrus’ plan to draw down reservoirs in the spring to speed flows for the migrating fish is much the same, he said.

Against that historical backdrop, Idaho Power was in the forefront of the campaign to restore the dwindling runs. Although government agencies were wrangling over a recovery strategy, the utility announced last fall that it was voluntarily modifying releases of water from the Hells Canyon complex to benefit restoration of the chinook runs its dams initially damaged.

“We want to go beyond what we’re asked to do,” Beaman said.