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Breaching the four Lower Snake River dams not an option right now, say Murray, Inslee

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Bonneville Power Administration
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Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said removing the four dams on the Lower Snake isn't feasible right now.

A much-awaited report said removing the four Lower Snake River dams shouldn't happen right now, but dam removal is the best way to protect Snake River salmon.

Now isn’t the right time to breach the four Lower Snake River dams, according to a recommendation from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The two Democrats announced their decision Thursday along with the final draft of a report that analyzed the feasibility of removing the four dams. While removing the dams would give salmon on the Snake River the best chance at survival, replacing the clean energy infrastructure and transportation services the dams provide can’t happen overnight, according to the report.

“It's clear that breach is not an option right now—while many mitigation measures exist, many require further analysis or are not possible to implement in the near-term,” Murray said in a statement.

While breaching the dams could happen one day, Murray and Inslee said, it would be irresponsible to breach the dams now.

“We must recognize that breaching the dams does in fact offer us the best chance at protecting endangered salmon and other iconic species that run through these waters. But the hydropower and economic benefits of the dams are significant, and breaching them before we have other systems in place to replace those benefits would be disastrous,” Inslee said in a statement.

The extinction of salmon is categorically unacceptable, Murray and Inslee said.

State and federal officials first must quickly replace the economic and energy benefits the dams provide, Murray and Inslee said.

The four Lower Snake River dams provide key services, such as making the river navigable for barges, raising the river level so that irrigation equipment can reach the water, and providing carbon-free energy. However, the four dams also make it that much harder for endangered salmon to make it to cold spawning waters in Idaho.

Replacing the dams could cost between $10.3 billion and $31.3 billion, with some anticipated costs still not calculated, according to the final feasibility report, which was similar to the draft report released in June that called change on the Lower Snake River inevitable.

While change may need to happen for salmon, Murray and Inslee called prematurely breaching the dams irresponsible. According to the feasibility report, much of the technology needed to replace services, such as energy or transportation, needs further development.

“Sustaining or replacing the benefits of the dams will require several urgent undertakings: we need to do a lot more to transition to clean and renewable energy sources, we have to invest in the region’s infrastructure to lower the cost of shipping goods to market, and we have to invest in water infrastructure and irrigation to support our producers in the face of a worsening climate crisis,” Murray said.

A recent report from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries recommended removing the four Lower Snake River dams to better protect salmon. NOAA Fisheries manages threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

The Biden administration did not endorse the actions outlined in the NOAA report. However, federal officials said the administration is considering the information as it assesses long-term plans for the Columbia River Basin, a first for recent administrations.

With this report from Murray and Inslee, supporters of keeping the dams in place appeared relieved that Murray and Inslee didn’t recommend immediately removing the four dams, noting that the decision would support Northwest farmers, the food they export via barges, and the irrigation that allows farmers to water crops.

“Now is not the time to make such great changes which would hurt U.S. farmers and significantly impact U.S. competitiveness in the global market, costing us trade, jobs, and economic stability here in the Northwest,” Glen Squires, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association president and Washington Grain Commission CEO, said in a statement.

In addition, other groups supporting the dams said removing the dams would have increased electrical costs and could have destabilized the region’s power grid.

“Replacement of the power generation capacity provided currently by the dams would come at a much higher cost and drive electrical bills higher long into the future,” said VJ Meadows, executive director, Tri-Cities Food Bank, in a statement.

But, not all supporters of the dams saw bright spots in the report. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, whose district covers part of the Lower Snake River dams, said Inslee and Murray were “trying to have their cake and eat it, too,” by keeping dam removal on the table.

“The fact of the matter is, even if they were able to replace the 66% of the state’s energy, which is currently provided by the clean, renewable and affordable hydroelectric dams, the loss of the dams would still devastate our communities: prices would rise, crops would perish, jobs would be eliminated, and the environment would be threatened,” Newhouse said.

Removing or altering the dams would take an act of Congress, something Newhouse said he would do everything in his power to prevent.

However, those in favor of dam removal were disappointed the report didn’t immediately call for removing the dams. Those who wanted the dams removed noted the report recognized the status quo for salmon wasn’t a viable option.

According to a statement from the Yakama Nation, dam breaching is the only way to fully restore a Columbia Basin fishery.

“Healthy, harvestable Columbia Basin salmon runs benefit the cultural, natural and economic vitality of all communities in the Pacific Northwest – rural and urban, Democrat and Republican, tribal and non-tribal,” said Jeremy Takala, Yakama Fish and Wildlife Committee Chairman, in a statement. “We cannot allow salmon recovery to become a dysfunctional, partisan political issue if we want our children and our grandchildren to have fish.”

Moreover, Takala said, the federal hydrosystem disproportionately affects indigenous people. Therefore, he said, tribes need to be at the table as replacement energy is considered.

“Replacement energy and transportation projects implemented to facilitate dam breaching must have tribal agreement and should not be done at the expense of tribal rights like the hydro system was,” Takala said.

In addition, Alyssa Macy, CEO of Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, said the Northwest congressional delegation needs to work hard to preserve salmon.

"Salmon are part of us: our DNA, our environment, our cultures, our treaties, and our Northwest identity. When the salmon go extinct, so do we because the fate of salmon is inextricably linked with our fate," Macy said in a statement.

In the meantime, Murray and Inslee said they will support projects to expand salmon habitat in the Columbia Basin and Puget Sound; work to more efficiently distribute funding for salmon projects by transitioning the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program from the Bonneville Power Administration to states and tribal fisheries co-managers; fund more ocean ecosystem research; and accelerate clean energy development.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.