By The Herald Editorial Board
The fate of four dams on Washington state’s lower Snake River — and the survival of the Snake’s four endangered salmon species — may be clearer by the end of the month.
A federal court deadline expires Aug. 31 for what’s been a year and a half of negotiations among the Biden administration, the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, environmental groups and others seeking a long-term comprehensive solution that would settle litigation over the federal plan for hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers, specifically regarding the impacts of the four Snake River dams on salmon and other fish.
As a backdrop to those negotiations, the threat of climate change and recent weather conditions in the Northwest have accelerated concerns for the survival of fish and the sustainability of the Northwest’s once-enviable supply of hydropower and irrigation for agriculture.
Tough summer for fish, farms, dams: While not the driest or hottest summer on record, a warmer than usual spring quickly depleted a generous snowpack in the Cascade Range, resulting in diminished stream flows along some areas of the Columbia Basin. Sturgeon were turning up dead in higher-than-normal numbers on the Columbia, and irrigators on the Yakima River were cutting water deliveries to farms, the Washington State Standard reported last month. The lower stream flows result in warmer water temperatures that were blamed for the dead sturgeon and risk the possible repeat of a massive sockeye salmon die off on the Columbia in 2015.
It’s not just fish and farmers feeling the heat, but the Columbia Basin’s dams, too.
A recent report by researchers at Stanford University, The Seattle Times reported this week, raises doubts about the reliability of hydropower as climate change in the West results in reduced snowpack, continued drought and warmer temperatures. A loss of hydropower production between 2018 and 2019, the Times story notes, required a higher reliance on natural gas- and coal-fired electrical generation in 2019 and an increase of 16.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions that year.
Dams and salmon: The impacts on salmon from reduced stream flows and warmer water are exacerbated by the dams and have contributed for years to reduced returns of salmon, Jacqueline Koch with the National Wildlife Federation’s Washington office said in a recent interview. Those depleted returns of salmon, she said, increase the likelihood of extinction of wild stocks of salmon. It’s not just fish passage around the dams that’s at issue, she said, but the dams’ effects on river conditions, especially temperature.
“The freshwater phase for salmon in rivers is critical. They start their lives in a river, they end their lives in a river, and if they don’t have a proper river with cold temperatures, it’s over.”
Which is why the National Wildlife Federation is seeking removal of the four dams and brought suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, challenging the federal hydropower plan.
Koch acknowledges the threats salmon face at sea and from fishing and natural predators, although the impacts on survival caused by dams are more than twice that of predation and harvest combined.
“But ocean conditions are not something that we can control. The only thing that we can control are these dams, and there are alternatives to the dams,” she said.
Those alternatives and their development were encouraged in 2021 by a joint report from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee, that committed to a process to determine whether there are “reasonable means for replacing the benefits provided by the Lower Snake River dams” that would justify the dams’ removal as part of a strategy to aid recovery of salmon.
While removal of the dams will be a federal decision, the state, Gov. Inslee and others understand the importance of being ready for that outcome to make that transition as quickly as possible, Tanya Riordan, policy and advocacy director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said in an interview.
Getting ready: Some of that work is underway thanks to a $7.5 million allocation in the state’s budget this year that — rather than just another study on removal of the dams — attempts to move forward with the planning necessary to replace what the dams provide in energy, barge transportation and irrigation for agriculture.
Rail lines will have to be upgraded to ship what is now handled by barges. And new lines and pumps will be necessary for irrigation systems. Replacing the dams’ electricity is more complicated, Riordan said, but within reach.
There have been different takes on how difficult that replacement would be, as discussed in a Herald editorial last July.
A 2022 report, commissioned by Northwest RiverPartners, a utility advocacy group that opposes dam removal, found that replacing the power from the four lower Snake River dams would cost $15 billion in new generation sources. Washington’s and Oregon’s goals for a carbon-neutral grid by 2045 will require a build-out of 160,000 megawatts of electricity, the report found. Removing the four dams would require finding an additional 14,900 megawatts above that.
Yet, a study commissioned by the Northwest Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental and other groups by the consulting firm Energy Strategies reviewed the range of planned clean-energy projects for wind, solar and large-scale energy storage in the Northwest and found ample provision being made for electricity that would result in little to no increase in carbon emissions. After subtracting projects whose energy is already “spoken for” by utilities and those projects unlikely to be completed, the study still found that only 12 percent of what’s now planned is needed to replace what the Snake River dams currently generate.
Future for dams: The four Snake River dams produce a comparatively small portion of the region’s power, much of it during the spring when demand is lowest, but hydroelectric dams overall provide about two-thirds of Washington state’s electricity, a source of energy that is vital to plans to reduce nearly to zero our reliance on energy from carbon-spewing fossil fuels in the next two decades.
Without question and for many decades to come, the services they provide will remain necessary to the Northwest. But as those dams — some of which are approaching a century of service — age and require maintenance and replacement of turbines and other infrastructure, decisions will have to be made as to where those investments can provide the greatest benefits in energy generation, transportation and irrigation while providing for tribal fishing rights, commercial and recreational fishing and survival of salmon and other species, including the state’s iconic orca whales which rely on Columbia Basin salmon for parts of the year.
Climate change may now be influencing the decision that for the sake of all of the basin’s beneficiaries some dams — at least the four lower Snake River dams — may need to go; to ensure that salmon and other species can survive and that other dams can remain.
If you give a fish a river: The dams removal would open up some 5,000 miles of protected, pristine high-elevation cold water habitat for salmon, steelhead and other native species, according to a Save Our Wild Salmon report. Analysis and reports by government agencies, tribes and others hold that removal of the four lower Snake River dams represents the best opportunity on the West Coast to prevent the extinction of salmon runs and provide for their restoration.
Joseph Bogaard, executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon, points to past and ongoing removal of dams on the White Salmon and Elwha rivers in Washington, the Carmel River in California and the Klamath River in Oregon, where the first of four dams are now being removed, showing promise and results for restoration of sustainable runs of salmon.
“The real world experience of those dam removals and river restorations tell a pretty compelling story,” said Bogaard, “that when you give a fish a river, they know what to do with it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the time of year when the four lower Snake River dams produce most of their electricity. This happens in the spring.