Comment: Herald editorial got facts wrong on dams’ reliability

The editorial board relied on Seattle Times reporting that was incomplete regarding drought and hydropower.

By Christine Reid and Kurt Miller / For The Herald

As people with a long history in the electricity field, we recognize energy policy is complicated. It’s complex because energy touches so many different aspects of our lives, from climate change to social equity, jobs, ecosystems and even public safety. To get energy policy right, you must do a deep dive into all of its impacts.

While we respect the Daily Herald’s editorial board, we believe its recent opinion (“Fate of dams way turn on talks, climate change,” The Herald, Aug. 14) fails to do that deeper dive. Instead, it repeats the mistaken claims ins The Seattle Times and anti-hydropower assertions.

First, the editorial includes the conclusions of the Seattle Times’ Aug. 7 article headlined “Climate change is making PNW hydropower less reliable” without checking to see if the Times got the story right. The Times did not.

The Times article is based upon a Stanford University study looking at how droughts can impact carbon dioxide emissions. The Time’s concludes that the study means hydropower in the Pacific Northwest will be less reliable in the future. The only problem is that the Stanford study actually showed that the PNW can expect more precipitation in the future, not less, under likely climate change scenarios. The Times mistakenly conflates the Pacific Northwest with California and the Desert Southwest, where models predict a drier future climate.

The Times’ story also missed a critical finding of the Stanford study, which showed hydropower’s capabilities cannot be replaced by wind and solar power. The reason is wind and solar power are “intermittent,” meaning they produce electricity sporadically, but you need electric generation that is available at the flip of a switch to meet electricity demand and avoid blackouts.

The Stanford study determined that if hydropower isn’t available to fill in the gaps for wind and solar power, you need more fossil fuels. The Stanford study concludes that even an “aggressive” buildout of wind and solar power can’t replace what hydropower does in terms of off-setting carbon dioxide

This finding brings us to an obvious conclusion: getting rid of the four lower Snake River dams would mean a certain increase in carbon emissions, millions of metric tons.

The ability of the dams to offset millions of tons of carbon dioxide is also important for salmon. A 2021 NOAA Fisheries peer-reviewed study stated that if the ocean continues to warm at current levels, it’s likely that key chinook populations will go extinct within 40 years’ time, irrespective of what happens in the rivers.

That’s not to say river temperatures aren’t important, but the Herald Editorial fails to mention that there have been major salmon die-offs in undammed rivers, including the Fraser River in 1994, the Yukon River in Alaska in 2019, and on Vancouver Island this summer.

The Herald editorial also doesn’t acknowledge that dam operators have gotten much better at protecting salmon from dangerous river temperatures. For example, in 2021, when we had a record setting heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, dam operators collected fish and trucked them safely upstream.

Another claim entertained by The Herald’s editorial is that breaching the dams would provide access to pristine high-elevation cold water habitat for salmon, steelhead, and other native species. However, that is a dubious conclusion. A 2020 peer-reviewed study by NOAA Fisheries demonstrated that salmon are more at risk in the higher elevation, undammed Salmon River (a tributary of the Snake River) than in the lower Snake River.

We appreciate The Herald’s editorial board’s attempt to address the challenging energy policy issue, but it’s important to get the facts straight. Often that requires a deeper dive into the research itself. We encourage everyone to do so.

Christine Reid is the political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77. For 125 years, IBEW Local 77 has been at the forefront of innovation and progress, shaping the way electricity powers our world.

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit hydropower advocacy group representing community-owned electric utilities, farmers and ports across the Pacific Northwest.

Editor’s note: As of Sept. 15, The Seattle Times had not retracted or corrected the reporting in its Aug. 7 story.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Friday, Sept. 22

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Flowers bloom on the end of a dead tree on Spencer Island on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Restore salmon habitat but provide view of its work

Comments are sought on a plan to restore fish habitat to the island east of Everett with popular trails.

Schwab: GOP ‘projection’ is slideshow of hypocrisy, deflection

Trump, of course, is guilty, but so are House Republicans desperate to ferret out elusive dirt on Joe Biden.

Arlington Mayor Tolbert has helped her region rebuild, grow

Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert has implemented the best programs to help people… Continue reading

Johnson’s endorsements reason enough to earn vote for sheriff

Another week. Another death at the Snohomish County jail (“Man, 38, identified… Continue reading

Resumption of expanded child tax credit can fight poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau has released poverty data for 2022 and the… Continue reading

Comment: Musk is his CEO’s X-factor (and not in a good way)

Musk is the widely variable variable for the X chief executive who can’t make headway on advertising.

FILE - Six-year-old Eric Aviles receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Sylvia Uong at a pediatric vaccine clinic for children ages 5 to 11 set up at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. In a statement Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, California's public health officer, Dr. Tomas J. Aragon, said that officials are monitoring the Omicron variant. There are no reports to date of the variant in California, the statement said. Aragon said the state was focusing on ensuring its residents have access to vaccines and booster shots. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Editorial: A plea for watchful calm this time regarding covid

We don’t need a repeat of uncontrolled infections or of the divisions over vaccines and masks.

A construction worker caulks the siding on a townhouse at The Towns at Riverfront housing development in Everett on October 25, 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Editorial: How do we put housing within reach of everyone?

A Herald Forum panel discussion considered the challenges and solutions for affordable housing.

Most Read