Comment: Salmon won’t wait for us to be ready to remove dams

Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray say removal isn’t feasible in the ‘near term.’ Neither is species’ survival.

By Michael W. Shurgot / For The Herald

Icon: An image; representation; or a simile or symbol.

— American Heritage Dictionary

“Breach is not a feasible option in the near-term.”

— Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray

In August Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., released their recommendations regarding the Joint Federal-State Process on Salmon Recovery. The Inslee-Murray report joins others from environmentalists, politicians and government agencies about the feasibility of removing the four Lower Snake River dams that have decimated numerous fish runs for decades. The Inslee-Murray report asserts “Status quo is not a responsible option,” and that “Extinction of salmon is categorically unacceptable.” However, it ignores crucial information about the diminishing need for the electric power generated by the dams and, more egregiously, the severity of the salmon extinction crisis.

First, regarding electric power: On July 31, a report by several federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, concluded that the electric power generated by the four dams was essential for the region. However, as Steven Hawley and Michael Peterson document in their film “Damned to Extinction,” the Bonneville Power Administration is losing money largely because of the emergence of cheap and abundant wind and solar power. “The dams are now money losers that have become hydroelectric redundancies on the larger power system. … Prices occasionally go negative in California because there’s so much solar on the market now” (Columbia Insight; Aug. 27, 2020).

Given these enormous changes in how power is generated, how much sense does it make to retain four aging dams that are losing money while destroying fish runs? Further, this regional power abundance obviates the need for building any new energy infrastructure as Inslee and Murray claim.

Secondly, regarding fish: In April 2021, the Nez Perce Tribe announced that “42 percent of wild chinook populations in streams that feed into the Snake are now in a state of quasi-extinction.” Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, defined quasi-extinction as a population “still in existence, but reproductively speaking, there’s no way in the world it can increase.” Hanson explained that “Quasi-extinction arises when the density of reproductive individuals in a given population becomes so small that it’s unable to sustain a growing, even stable population” (Columbia Insight; Dec. 16, 2021).

The Snake River Savers environmental group insists that federal and state agencies must expedite the removal of the four dams. If we believe that salmon and orcas are truly icons of the Pacific Northwest, we can not wait. The potentially fatal problem with Inslee’s and Murray’s “not a feasible option in the near-term” is that we have no idea how much longer the majority of the “quasi-extinct” Snake River species can survive.

More dithering from politicians could easily change that “quasi” to “de-facto.”

Michael W. Shurgot retired as professor of humanities from South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia in 2006, where he developed courses in American environmental literature. He teaches literature in a senior educational program in Seattle.

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