Removing dams from Lower Snake River offers best chance of salmon recovery – at high cost, report says
If four dams on the Lower Snake River were breached to support salmon recovery, the power, irrigation, recreation and other benefits they provide to the Pacific Northwest could be replaced for 10.3 to 27 .2 billion, according to a draft report released Thursday by U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-WA, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
The report takes no position on whether the hydroelectric dams should be removed, but finds that failure offers the best chance of recovering salmon runs in the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers, increasing fishing opportunities and to fulfill federal responsibilities to treaty tribes that have surrendered their lands. to the U.S. government on terms that guaranteed their access to fish in their traditional territories.
The joint federal-state report enters a highly charged and long-running political fight over the future of dams in southeast Washington. It also comes as salmon return to the Columbia and Snake struggles for survival amid reduced river flows in the summer and fall due to increased drought and reduced snowpack due to changing climatic.
The report calculated the replacement costs of the dam’s benefits in current dollars and analyzed them spread over a 50-year period. Analysis of major areas of benefit from dams and the impacts of their removal include: 100-mile barge transportation from the Tri-Cities to Lewiston, Idaho; hydroelectric generation that boosts the reliability of the electric grid and provides enough carbon-free energy to power a city the size of Seattle; irrigation, mainly for very large farms; and tourism and recreation. The report also looked at the impacts of dams on species, tribes, and recreational and commercial fishing.
One of the biggest challenges would be to replace lost power generation. A 2020 federal estimate cited in the new draft report puts that cost over 50 years at $9.3 billion to $18.6 billion, with the highest estimate for production that releases zero carbon emissions. .
Any dam-breaking effort would reduce the amount of renewable energy produced in the region as Washington and other West Coast states attempt a major transition away from fossil fuel power generation. The report says alternative power “must be in place and demonstrated to produce power” before the dam breaks to avoid “significant impacts” on the region’s power grid and the communities that rely on it. .
A public comment period on the report will end on July 11. After public comment, tribal consultation, and other engagement, the report will be updated and released in its final form by July 30. Murray and Inslee will then make their recommendations on the future of the four dams, they said in a joint statement.
“We continue to approach the issue of the breach with an open mind and without a predetermined decision. From the outset, we have placed the engagement of the public and community stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest as the foundation of any process. regional,” Murray and Inslee said.
“We all remain strongly committed to saving our salmon. We also know that dams provide significant benefits to the economy and communities in our region.
Shannon Wheeler, vice president of the Nez Perce Tribe, which holds treaty fishing rights to the Lower Snake and Columbia, said the report does what the tribe hoped for, by fairly and accurately articulating the risks to status quo salmon and the possibility of an equitable dam removal strategy that benefits salmon and the region.
“He’s saying what we’ve been saying all along, that the salmon need help, and it’s time for leadership to step up,” Wheeler said. “We can’t sit and wait and study this for another three years with a task force, kicking the box and leading to extinction.”
The report states that if a breach is recommended, it will still need to be authorized by Congress, and a funding strategy and timeline determined.
Some predicted that the congressional authorization was invalid, rendering the report moot.
“I don’t see the current Congress accepting any of this; That will never happen. I don’t know why they bothered,” said Darryll Olsen, a board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, which supports a two-dam drawdown on the Lower Snake, an alternative not analyzed in the report. .
A broad coalition of river users who benefit from the dams has long opposed their removal.
In the lead up to the release of this report, they have been on high alert to respond to what they see as a potential new threat to dams. And Northwest RiverPartners, whose members include utility districts as well as ports and other groups, ran an advertising campaign that includes TV and radio spots touting the benefits of dams.
“One of the things that really concerns us is that there is potentially going to be a decision here that will completely impact the future of the affordability and reliability of the network,” said Kurt Miller, director executive of Northwest RiverPartners. “It’s really disconcerting because we think there’s so much risk for the region…we really feel like this is an important moment.”
After decades of litigation, reports and analysis of Lower Snake River dams and salmon survival, it’s time to act, said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save our Wild Salmon Coalition, an organization nonprofit that advocates for the removal of dams on the Lower Snake River. and salmon salvage.
“We put ourselves in a very difficult situation; salmon populations are in steep decline and the stranglehold of climate change has increased the urgency for us to change our ways,” Bogaard said. “…we need to figure out the details of a plan and start implementing it very quickly and do it in a way that everyone bound by these species can live with it.”
The Lower Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. The four dams built on the Lower Snake River were the last built in the Columbia River federal power system, with Lower Granite, the most inland dam on the Lower Snake River, completed in 1975.
The federal system includes 31 dams in the basin that together generate one-third of the Northwest’s electricity.
The dams are operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Bonneville Power Administration sells power from the dams to the western United States grid, including customers throughout the Northwest.
The federal system has a maximum production potential of 17,462 megawatts. The four Lower Snake River dams represent 3,033 megawatts of federal capacity, and in an average year the dams operate at about one-third of that capacity, according to the Bonneville Power Administration.
The dams have helped fuel the region’s growth. But that economic engine has worked at the expense of salmon, which continue to decline despite more than $24 billion in taxpayer dollars spent from 1980 to 2018 on improving fish passage at dams and other recovery measures, according to the report.
Salmon and rainbow trout have declined to more than 90% of their natural abundance before the dam in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Dams are just one cause of this decline: Chinooks are in steep decline in West Coast rivers, including relatively pristine rivers without dams, according to a recently published scientific article. But on the Columbia and the Snake, the impact of the dams is significant. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Center estimated the survival assess for migrating juvenile salmon through the eight lower Snake and Columbia dams and reservoirs at 52.5% for spring chinook and 50% for rainbow trout.
Today, more than 40% of wild Spring/Summer Snake River chinook populations are near extinction, with less than 50 adult fish returning in each of the past five years, and 12 returns. salmon and rainbow trout. are threatened with extinction. The Snake River Basin was once home to about 50% of the Chinook and Rainbow Trout in the entire Columbia River Basin.
The chinook is crucial not only to humans, but also to wildlife, including the endangered southern resident killer whale, which depends on the Columbia chinook and snake as part of their diet.
Analysis by federal and tribal scientists shows breach the lower serpent The dams would dramatically improve the passage of salmon, rainbow trout and lamprey and increase the tribal harvest by almost 30% per year – and have the highest probability of removing salmon from the Act lists. endangered species and meet treaty obligations among any other alternative, according to the report.
Tribes across the region united in support of removing the dam on the Lower Snake.
According to the report, restoring fisheries in the basin could also generate up to $1 billion in recreational fishing in rural communities.
Constraints on river operations and the generating capacity of dams are already underway due to global warming.
Federal courts can further restrict power generation on dams by imposing increased discharge of water on dams rather than turbines, in order to increase flows for migrating juvenile fish. Other changes to meet water temperature standards are also coming.
Today, temperatures reach deadly levels in the summer in the reservoirs of the dams. A kill fish en masse sockeye salmon occurred in the lower Columbia in 2015 due to high water temperatures.
As fish continue to decline, the battle in federal court over salmon in the Columbia and Snake has dragged on in one of North West’s oldest court battles. Litigants, including the state of Oregon and several tribes and fishing and environmental groups, have suspended action on river operations pending the outcome of the joint state and federal process currently underway on the dam breach.
Comments on the draft report can be provided via a form on the project website, by email or by post. All comments must be submitted by 5:00 p.m. PST on July 11, 2022.
Online comments can be submitted through the project website: https://www.lsrdoptions.org/. Email comments can be sent to [email protected] with the email subject line “LSRD Benefit Replacement Study Project”.
The $375,000 report was compiled by a consultant and expert support retained by the governor’s office.