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Federal Decision To Keep Snake River Dams In Place Is Now Official. The Dam Debate Is Far From Over

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River in Washington is one of four dams considered for removal or breaching in a long-running debate.

Federal agencies have finalized a plan that will keep the Snake River Dams in place. It allows for more springtime spill over dams to help juvenile salmon migrating out to the Pacific Ocean.

After four years of study, the Record of Decision makes the federal agencies’ preferred option official. Managers and dam supporters say it will benefit salmon, reliable hydropower and the economy. 

“(The decision) also provides flexibility for the future, so we can improve as the science advances,” said John Hairston, acting administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.

BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation approved the decision.

“The document evaluates the necessary response between responsible environmental stewardship and the multiple uses of the Columbia River System,” said Lorri Gray, regional director with the Bureau of Reclamation.

River Uses At Odds

Some of the uses are at odds: navigation to and from Lewiston, Idaho, the West’s most inland port, irrigation for growers along the Snake, the balance of renewable energy, the survival of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, tribal treaty rights, sport and commercial fishing and recreation.

Wild salmon advocates, tribal representatives and renewable energy advocates, who support removing the four Lower Snake River dams in southeastern Washington, say this decision will hurt salmon and the orcas that depend on them for food.

The plan guides dam management on the Columbia River System, which includes the four controversial Snake River dams. Whether the dams should stay or go has been a decades-long debate. 

The fight picked up steam in 2016, when a federal judge ordered dam managers to consider removing or altering those dams on the Snake. It was the fifth time a federal judge had sent dam managers back to reconfigure their plans to protect threatened and endangered salmon.

Salmon advocates say this current plan is very similar to the 2016 plan that ended up in court.

“The differences between the plan adopted by these agencies today and the plan the court rejected in 2016 are hard to discern. And the plan the court rejected in 2016 was not materially different from plans the court had rejected in 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2011,” Earthjustice attorney Todd True wrote in a statement. “To say we need a new approach, that we need leadership from our elected representatives, and that we need to find a solution that works for all of us is to state the obvious.”

This environmental impact statement looked at how operations at the 14 dams in the Columbia River System affect salmon survival. It also took into account the social and economic problems that could result from removing the four Lower Snake River dams, including problems for irrigation and barging. 

Pacific Northwest Waterways Association Executive Director Kristin Meira said the Snake River dams make it possible to responsibly ship products.

“(There are) much fewer emissions than you would have with truck and rail, which are important modes. But if you have access to barging, it’s certainly the way to move that kind of cargo,” Meira said.

She said ports and businesses – which need a reliable and safe way to ship products – are pleased with the deep look taken during this process.

Rounds Of Public Meetings

Over four years, the plan faced rounds of public meetings and examination through nearly 59,000 public comments. The Trump administration sped up the process, which frustrated some groups wishing to remove the dams.

Most recently, environmental groups asked the federal government to extend its comments after they were moved online because of the pandemic.

Tribal groups also said they felt like they weren’t listened to during the process. 

Don Sampson is the chief of the Walla Walla Tribe and spokesperson for the newly formed Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance. He said this plan is insufficient.

“It doesn’t even come close to meeting salmon restoration goals of states in the Northwest and the communities that depend on those salmon,” Sampson said. “It’s far, far (from) meeting the treaty obligations of the United States to tribes that signed treaties and subsequently transferred millions of acres of land to the United States, with a requirement that salmon populations be abundant and harvestable.”

Sampson, who is a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, said Umatilla fishers have only harvested 100 salmon over the past 20 years from eight major tributaries of the Snake River. He says that’s supposed to go to around 3,000 people. Historically, tribal members harvested thousands of fish to feed families.

“Indigenous people here in the Northwest – who have legal rights – they’re facing injustice because salmon that their livelihood depends on is being exterminated. It’s time that people take a look at that and say: ‘This is a social justice issue. This is a human rights issue,’” Sampson said.

Sampson said the alliance is building a coalition of Northwest tribes, who all depend on salmon, to restore salmon and a free-flowing Lower Snake River.

Increasing Spill

One major aspect of this plan will increase the amount of spill poured over dams as juvenile fish migrate to the Pacific Ocean. A three-year flexible spill agreement — in place since 2019 — is supposed to balance fish and hydropower needs. Operators can choose whether more water needs to pass through turbines or over the tops of dams, depending on the demand for electricity. Water spilled over dams does not generate electricity.

This decision would continue with the flexible spill agreement, but would allow for study of the benefits and problems of increasing the amount of spill. When more water spills over the tops of dams, it can increase the amount of total dissolved gasses in the water. The plan says that could “result in delays to fish passage.”

Salmon advocates have called increased spill a “stopgap measure” in the fight to help salmon survive. 

Beyond protecting salmon, dam supporters said the structures are necessary to generate carbon-free energy, especially in a time when climate change is making fires more intense and degrading marine habitat.

“The clean power and efficient commerce provided by the system’s hydroelectric dams and navigation locks are key to our region’s ability to reduce our carbon footprint – one of the most important steps in the fight against climate change,” Meira said.

But Robb Krehbiel, with Defenders of Wildlife, said he doesn’t consider the dams a form of clean energy.

“Any energy source that has such an impact on wildlife and tribal treaty rights cannot be considered clean. While hydro does produce carbon-free energy, we have so many other technologies that do the same,” Krehbiel said.

Likely Not Over

This likely won’t be the end to the debate over how to protect salmon and what to do about the four Lower Snake River dams. Some groups may head back to the courtroom.

Others are pivoting to more regional-based approaches, working with governors from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. They’re also roping in members of Congress. Altering or removing the dams would require an act of Congress.

The area’s lawmakers have long sought to keep the Snake River dams in place. Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse, who represents the Tri-Cities and much of central Washington, has “stood in steadfast support” of the dams, organizing panel discussions and extra stops of a dam panel series. 

“Federal water infrastructure makes our way of life possible throughout the West. Central Washington boasts one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, and our farmers and ranchers would simply not be able to provide food and fiber for the world without a reliable supply of our most precious resource: water,” Newhouse said in a statement. 

Newhouse’s fellow Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose eastern Washington district also includes the dams, is a strong supporter of keeping them in place.

“The Columbia and Snake River dams are foundational to our way of life in the Pacific Northwest,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement Tuesday. “They provide us clean, renewable, low-cost energy, support our farmers, provide flood control to our region, and so much more. Based on the best available science, the Columbia River System Operations (CRSO) Record of Decision confirms what we already knew, our dams and river system are essential to our region.”

Conservation groups are also looking to Northwest governors, such as Jay Inslee in Washington. Inslee previously slated $750,000 for a study that gauged attitudes toward the fate of the Snake River dams. Four panels convened in different parts of the state to discuss issues related to dams, salmon and orcas.

Krehbiel, with Defenders of Wildlife, said governors and some members of Congress want to take a harder look at ways to save salmon.

“This isn’t the end of the campaign. It’s an unfortunate stopping point along the road to river restoration,” Krehbiel said.

Courtney Flatt covers environmental and natural resource issues for Northwest Public Broadcasting. She is based in Washington's Tri-Cities. On Twitter: @courtneyflatt

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