It’s not water over the dam.
In other words, don’t assume the word “final” in three federal agencies’ Final Environmental Impact Statement regarding salmon and steelhead preservation strategies on the Columbia and Snake rivers has ended the debate over the fate of four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.
At the end of last month, three federal agencies — the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversee management of the Northwest’s hydroelectric dams — released their final analysis and recommendations on how best to preserve threatened and endangered runs of salmon and steelhead on the rivers.
For more than 20 years, environmentalists and regional tribes have advocated for river habitat enhancements, including the removal of the four Snake River dams built in the 1960s and 1970s between the Tri-Cities and the Washington-Idaho border. Removal of the dams is seen as the most effective way to save and rebuild declining runs of the fish on which tribal, sport and commercial fishing depend, as well as other endangered species, especially the state’s orca whales, which spend part of the year at the mouth of the Columbia feeding on salmon before returning to Salish Sea waters in Northwest Washington.
Currently, 13 runs of salmon are listed as endangered or threatened species; four of them return to the Snake River to end and begin their life cycle.
But the dams’ removal has been opposed by many who warn that the loss of the dams would bring a decrease in available electricity and higher costs for the region’s ratepayers and difficulties for Eastern Washington farmers who depend on the dams for irrigation and barge shipping.
The federal agencies in the 5,000-page report recommend leaving the four dams in place, instead using increased spill of water at the dams during spring and early summer to aid the passage of juvenile fish on their way down river to the Pacific Ocean. Increasing spill during times of low demand for electricity would reduce the number of fish killed in turbines and screens.
The agencies’ report, however, admits that removal of the dams would provide endangered sockeye and threatened steelhead and spring and fall chinook the best chance at recovery, the Lewiston Tribune reported last week, and that the “flexible spill” plan’s effectiveness is limited, providing enough chance for fish survival to stop the decline of runs but not to rebuild fish numbers.
That’s because the fish need more than the spill of water when it’s convenient for electricity production to thrive and rebuild their numbers, said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director for Columbia Riverkeeper, which advocates for the river, speaking last week with The Herald Editorial Board.
The dams slow and limit the number of salmon returning to spawning grounds above the dams, but the dams themselves also are a major source of water pollution that is killing salmon; not from a chemical contaminant but from water that’s too warm for fish survival.
“It’s become so hot on the Snake, we think that dam removal is likely the only way to meet safe temperature levels for salmon,” VandenHeuvel said.
That threat was recently affirmed in a report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The Snake River dams, called run-of-the-river dams because of their limited storage capacity, are shallower than other dams on the Columbia, allowing for temperatures to build during summer heat. Salmon can tolerate temperatures up to about 68 degrees; last week, temperatures behind three of the four dams ranged from 71 to 73 degrees for the week ending Aug. 3, a range they had exceeded for at least two weeks this summer, according to the most recent “hot water report” by Save Our Salmon, a state organization advocating for salmon.
In 2015, an estimated 250,000 adult sockeye salmon died from exposure to warm waters during a hot summer with reduced river flows, VandenHeuvel said. On other occasions adult salmon — fighting their evolutionary drive to spawn — have swum in circles or actually reversed course on the river, swimming downstream to cooler water when confronted by high temperatures, he said.
Environmental groups, tribes and others don’t deny the potential impacts of the dams’ removal for hydroelectric production, irrigation and barge transportation, but they continue to encourage a discussion among residents, interest groups and officials about workable solutions for all.
There are options, Sam Mace of Save Our Salmon told the editorial board to replace lost power production with solar and wind generation; as well, continued investments in rail freight and irrigation could address the concerns of farmers, she said.
The dams are not without their own costs, Mace and VandenHeuvel said. The dams’ components, including their turbines, are nearing the end of their service lives and will need replacement in coming years; likewise there are continuing costs to maintain the locks and dredge the river bottom to keep barge traffic moving.
The final determination by the involved federal agencies shouldn’t mean an end to discussions about the potential benefits of removing the dams, said Jacqueline Koch of the National Wildlife Federation.
Lawsuits that challenge the federal plan remain a possibility. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed lower court rulings that will require the state of Washington to spend up to $3.7 billion to replace culverts under highways and roads that block salmon access.
Ultimately, a decision on the dams’ removal could be left to Congress. Koch, Mace and VandenHeuvel expressed support for continuing discussions that move forward on infrastructure improvements that would be necessary should the dams be removed in the future.
Those discussions, Koch said, don’t necessarily fall along the nation’s red-blue divide. While Washington’s three Republican House representatives have stated their support for keeping the dams, among those encouraging a discussion of what dam removal would look like is U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Even as the federal plan recommends keeping the dams, Koch said, “we do actually see a bright spot, because it does recognize that we need to be thinking about this in a different way.”
That time to think — and then act — however, is not unlimited, especially as changes in climate more frequently affect seasonal snowpack and river water temperatures.
If the number of salmon returning to spawn continues to fall — and the number of the state’s Southern Resident killer whales also continues its decline — we are left with fewer options and costlier remedies to prevent their extinction.