John McKern was a fish and wildlife biologist for the Walla Walla District of the Army Corps of Engineers for 29 years. He is a recognized expert on fish passage through dams and salmon survival. He observed the January 30, 2024 Hearing conducted by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Representative Jeff Duncan, Chair of the Energy, Climate and Grid Security Committee.

His complete submission to the Chairs following the Hearing can be found here. McKern’s overall position is that removing dams will not result in significant returns of salmon. Further, efforts by salmon harvest groups in concert with environmental groups presumably to help improve salmon returns have the opposite effect––they are hurting salmon returns.

Here is a brief summary of key facts he presented which support his position and Save Family Farming’s message of a great misdiagnosis harming Chinook salmon recovery.

1. The 95% reduction in historic numbers of salmon was NOT because of the Lower Snake River Dams as removal advocates and numerous media reports repeatedly claim.

2. Removing dams would not increase spawning habitat because historic spawning habitat above the dams is blocked by upriver dams, forestry, mining, agriculture and other human activities.

3. Fish successfully pass through the dams because of the fish passage systems which allow passage of over 95% of fish––in some passages up to 100% survival.

4. Efforts to increase mass spill by harvest management and environmental groups in litigation are harming salmon recovery creating dangerous gas supersaturation of water which is lethal to fish.

5. Dams reduce water temperature helping fish survive normal high temperatures in the river.

Supporting Details

1. Salmon numbers

Yakama Nation representative at the Hearing, Mr. Takala, reported that in 1855 18 million salmon passed the site where the Bonneville Dam site is located. These numbers are used by dam removal advocates to say that the dams caused the loss of salmon. The truth is very different. Since 2000 more than one million salmon returned to the Columbia River system with 2.4 million returning in 2014. However, in the first recorded actual count of salmon in 1939, the

numbers had been reduced to 482,618 counted at the dam. Overfishing and habitat loss beginning in the 1860s are recognized as the primary causes of this sharp decline.

2. Spill passage

The message that salmon cannot pass through the dams is another recurring myth recounted by activists and media reports. McKern’s statement:

In the powerhouse, screens in turbine intakes divert most juvenile salmon into a bypass system that either releases them to the river below the dam or into fish transport trucks or barges (over 95% are barged) at collection facilities. Survival through bypass systems ranges from 98 to 100% (no transport from Ice Harbor Dam). Survival through turbines ranges from 87 to 93%, but new turbine technology has provided over 98% survival through two replacement turbines at Ice Harbor Dam installed within the last 3 years.

3. Dangers of mass spill

In the 1970s a catastrophic loss of fish was caused by supersaturation or dissolved atmospheric gas in water. Demands by harvest management and environmental groups to increase mass spill over the dams, presumably to help protect salmon, actually introduce the risk of supersaturation. McKern writes:

Mass spill not only causes over 400 miles of river to be operated at dangerous if not lethal gas supersaturation levels, more water over spillways and less through the powerhouse means more fish migrate in-river and fewer fish are transported. In-river survival is about 50% compared with over 98% by transport. It also means more water passes without generating electricity.

4. Water temperature

Elevated water temperatures can be harmful to fish and in the summer stream and river water is naturally lower and heated. McKern reports that the Clearwater and Snake rivers from Idaho naturally reach 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Above the Lower Granite Dam, the most upriver of the four Lower Snake River Dams, the temperature rarely exceeds 70 degrees where without the dams the river temperature reached 80 degrees.