background_fid.jpg
Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

New draft report says removing the Snake River dams would be best for salmon

A new draft report says breaching the four Lower Snake River dams would be best for salmon.
Bonneville Power Administration
/
A new draft report says breaching the four Lower Snake River dams would be best for salmon.

Breaching the dams would be the best way to remove Snake River salmon runs from the Endangered Species List and the best way to maintain treaty and trust obligations with tribes, according to the report. It could cost from $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion.

A new draft report released Thursday called change in the Lower Snake River inevitable. The draft report will guide U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee as they make recommendations, expected next month, on the fate of the four Snake River dams.

“We continue to approach the question of breaching with open minds and without a predetermined decision. From the start, we have placed public and stakeholder engagement from communities across the Pacific Northwest as the foundation of any regional process,” according to a joint statement from Murray and Inslee.

Breaching the dams would be the best way to remove Snake River salmon runs from the Endangered Species List and the best way to maintain treaty and trust obligations with tribes, according to the report.

“Although this draft report describes a potential path forward to successfully replace, or even improve upon services currently provided by the Lower Snake River dams, significant work would be needed to bring this outcome about,” according to the report.

Congress ultimately would need to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to breach the dams, which is one main reason Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, brought his Republican colleagues to tour a dam on the Snake River last week.

Removing the four dams in southeastern Washington would mean replacing a litany of services they provide, including carbon-free energy, access to irrigation, and grain transportation from what is now the West Coast’s most inland port, Lewiston, Idaho.

In October 2021, Murray and Inslee announced a joint federal-state process to determine whether the benefits from the Snake River dams could be replaced if the dams were removed or altered to save threatened and endangered salmon runs.

This draft report comes after around four and a half months of research and outreach, expanding upon previous efforts to study the benefits of the dams, including the 2020 Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement and an earlier plan by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to replace the four dams.

The draft report examines whether the services provided by the four Lower Snake River dams could be replaced or improved if the dams were removed. In instances when those services could not be replaced, the draft report looks at ways to lessen the gap from missing resources, including irrigation and barge transportation.

The draft report finds that replacings the resources that the dams currently provide could cost from $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion, with other anticipated costs likely popping up. Breaching the dams would require significant federal funding, according to the report, including potential funding from sources such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Simpson also had proposed as a way to fund mitigation measures if the dams were breached.

According to the report, “Moving forward with dam breaching also would require establishing timelines and milestones for results, agreement on a comprehensive funding strategy, additional analyses to maximize benefits at all stages of the process, continued technological advancements and implementation of a significant infrastructure program.”

Moreover, according to the report, changes have already occurred and will continue to happen at the Lower Snake River dams. For example, more instances of drought and the declining of snowpack has meant reduced summer and fall flows of the river, which, in turn, lowers the power capacity at the four dams on the Snake, according to the report.

Furthermore, federal courts could continue to demand increased spill of water over the tops of dams to help juvenile salmon migrate out to sea, according to the report. Dam supporters said current spill orders already wastes potential energy generation at the dams, and supporters favor any additional spill.

Currently, according to the report, 42% of Snake River wild spring/summer chinook have natural origin spawners below the quasi-extinction threshold, which means the numbers of returning adults is too low to be sustainable.

"Snake River salmon are barreling toward extinction, and unless we act, the communities, jobs, and traditions they support will vanish with them," said Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

But, removing the dams would mean losing important services such as navigation and transportation.

If the dams were no longer in place, any shipping between Lewiston, Idaho, and the Tri-Cities in Washington, would shift to rail and trucks, according to the report.

“Given the estimated changes in rail and truck transportation significant improvements would be required to expand and upgrade shortline rail networks, as well as local and state roadways,” according to the report.

Irrigation access also would need changes if the dams were breached.

The Lower Snake River dams support around 47,000 acres of irrigated farmland. Ice Harbor dam, closest to the Tri-Cities, provides the most irrigation for agricultural land and for groundwater users.

If the dams came out, replacing those services would include lowering intake structures, creating additional pumping capacity, and digging deeper wells, according to the report.

The energy the dams generate would need to come from elsewhere as well. That could be done, according to the report, with increases in solar and wind energy generation, energy efficiency, and energy storage.

“Replacing the energy production of the Lower Snake River dams would take time, funding, planning and collaboration across all stakeholders to ensure that the region’s future clean energy goals are met, the region maintains a reliable system, and customers, especially the most vulnerable, are not overly burdened by increased electricity rates,” according to the report.

However, the technology isn’t there yet, said Kurt Miller, executive director with Northwest RiverPartners, a group that advocates for keeping the dams in place.

“This is a generational issue in terms of the reliable, clean, affordable future of the electrical grid,” Miller said.

Other renewable energy groups have found it’s possible to generate carbon-free energy without the Snake River dams in place. The advocacy group NW Energy Coalition said in a recent report that a mix of renewable resources could replace the dams.

“The Northwest has planned for energy replacement of this scale before, and we can do it again with smart planning, investments for a better future, and regional collaboration,” Nancy Hirsh, NW Energy Coalition executive director, said in a statement.

For this to work, according to the report, the energy facilities that would replace the dams must be up and running before breaching the dams.

While many services could be replaced, according to the report, breaching the dams would hit the cruise and tourism industry hard. In 2019, the cruise industry contributed around $4 million to the economy. In addition, commerce at the Lewiston and Clarkston ports could fall dramatically

“It is clear that prior to breaching additional work would be needed to identify broader impacts to the local community and actions that can be taken to maintain and enhance economic vitality in the region,” according to the report.

For its part, officials with the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which supports keeping the dams in place, said the draft report oversimplifies what could be lost if the dams were removed or altered.

“There are significant gaps in the report as it relates to understanding the reality of shifting to alternative transportation modes, permitting and developing the infrastructure that would be required, impacts to Northwest and U.S. farmers, and the true ability to meet our regional and national climate goals without the dams in place,” Heather Stebbings, the executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said in a statement.

In response to the expected release of the report, Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both R-Washington, introduced legislation to protect the four Lower Snake River dams. The dams in southeastern Washington are in the districts that Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers represent.

“Amidst a national energy and supply chain crisis, it is unconscionable that dam-breaching advocates—including Governor Inslee and Senator Murray—repeatedly attempt to force a predetermined, unscientific conclusion that will put our communities who are already struggling at risk,” Newhouse said in a statement.

However, removing the dams to protect salmon can and should be done, said Helen Neville, chief scientist at Trout Unlimited, which favors dam removal. It’s just a matter of political willpower, she said.

The threatened and endangered Snake River salmon runs cannot survive if the dams remain standing, she said.

“It’s a truly historical opportunity that we have right now,” Neville said. “The key thing is to make a choice of whether or not we’re going to step up to make meaningful change that will really change the status of these fish.”

Decades of science show dam removal is critical for salmon on the Snake River to survive, Neville said. Salmon populations in other parts of the Columbia Basin don’t have as hard a time as the Snake River salmon, she said.

“It’s the cumulation of having to pass eight dams up here that is really pushing them to the limits,” Neville said.

Moreover, for tribes, every day the dams remain in place is a day that the federal government is breaching the Treaty of 1855, said Kat Brigham, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees chair. With that treaty, Columbia River tribes ceded their land for the promise to fishing rights within all usual and accustomed spots.

“Federal investment in salmon recovery would protect the Pacific Northwest interests, provide benefits, and revitalize failing fishing and other economies. Salmon recovery is vital to the entire region,” Brigham said in a statement.

In addition, Delano Saluskin, Yakama Nation Tribal Council chairman, said salmon are at a crisis point.

“We have elders who were alive when 16 million salmon returned to this basin every year,” Saluskin said in a statement. “Now the numbers are a small fraction of that.”

Breaching the dams could increase tribal harvest numbers by 29% annually, according to the report.

In addition, the reservoirs inundated land around the Snake River, causing tribes to lose access to more than 700 acres of cultural sites where people lived, collected berries, roots and plants, and conducted religious ceremonies, according to the draft report. Draining the reservoirs would return around 34,000 acres to tribes, where ancestors are buried, according to the report.

If the dams were removed and the smaller reservoirs revealed these sites again, the sites would need to be protected from vandalism, according to a draft Lower Snake River Dams Engagement Report from 2020.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the four Lower Snake River dams, including Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams. The Bonneville Power Administration sells and markets energy the dams generate.

Together, the dams yearly produce around 940 average Megawatts of energy, which makes up about 4.3% of the energy generated throughout the Northwest energy system, according to the report. The dams make up 11% of the generation in BPA’s entire system. The Lower Snake River dams often produce the most energy in the late winter and spring, when runoff is high.

During the 2021 heatwave, officials at BPA said the power generated by the Lower Snake River dams helped keep the lights on, especially in the Tri-Cities and Eastern Washington.

Through 5 p.m. July 11, the public can provide comments on the draft report that Murray and Inslee said they will consider. People can email comments to info@lsrdoptions.org with the subject line “Draft LSRD Benefit Replacement Study.” People also can comment online at the website www.lsrdoptions.org.

A final recommendation from Murray and Inslee on next steps for the Snake River dams is expected this summer.