Students Protest Snake River Dams with Flotilla

Sara Platnick

Whitman students and other members of the Whitman community participated in a flotilla protest on the Snake River last weekend to advocate for the closing of four dams located on the lower part of the river.

The flotilla involved paddling, boating and kayaking along the lower Snake while holding signs to show the ecological and economic problems with the dams. The protesters documented the event with video cameras, photographs and drones to use the footage in a social media campaign to show legislators the support for this issue.Over 300 people attended the flotilla, including approximately 40 people from Whitman College.

“It definitely felt like we were a part of something greater because we made up a big chunk of the group… more than 10 percent of the people there were from Whitman. It was really cool,” said junior Betsey Olk, who attended the flotilla.

Photo by Halley McCormick.
Photo contributed by Halley McCormick.

The dams have been a contentious issue to the river as they greatly alter the ecosystem for native salmon and other wildlife, but also provide five percent of the Pacific Northwest’s energy through hydroelectric power.

“The debate over the Snake River dams represents a larger, national conversation regarding the role of dams in a changing, warming world…Following on the removal of the Elwha River dams, the removal of the Snake River dams would set national precedent and give birth to a necessary reconsideration of national energy sources and issues of conservation,” said junior Fiona Bennitt in an email.

Bennitt founded Rethink Dams last spring, a student organization which advocates for the removal of the Snake River’s four lower dams. She is off-campus this semester, and in her absence junior Mariah Bruns took over organizing the event.

The flotilla protest was part of a larger effort by the group Save our Wild Salmon, a group aimed at restoring wild salmon population in the Snake River by closing the four lower dams. The flotilla was sponsored by a variety of environmental advocacy groups, including Patagonia, who produced the 2014 documentary “Damnation”, which focused on the negative effects that dams can have on wildlife and ecosystems. The producers of “Damnation” attended the event and encouraged participants to photograph and record the event to use in further social media campaigns.

Photo contributed by Emily Aumann.
Photo contributed by Emily Aumann.

“There weren’t many people watching [the flotilla] because it’s a Saturday, so there’s nobody working on the dam and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere so it’s not like there’s a lot of people that we were influencing, but that’s something we talked about afterwards, that it felt kind of weird to us that we were doing this big thing for nobody,” said Olk.

“But the big thing was documented so that it can be seen by Congress and Obama and just the general public. And so I think the main goal was to get our message out but in more of a social media, online way.”

Rethink Dams hopes that by taking this event and documenting it through video and photos, the event can gain more publicity.

“I think it’s going to be mostly through visuals and media that people really learn about this issue, but I think that can also be a really effective form of communication when it comes to activism,” said Bruns.

Photo contributed by Emily Aumann.
Photo contributed by Halley McCormick.