By The Herald Editorial Board
Most Northwesters can agree on this much: We like our salmon wild and from Northwest waters and our electricity plentiful, inexpensive and increasingly from carbon-neutral sources, in particular from the state’s hydro-electric dams.
But salmon and hydropower now face uncertain futures, especially as climate change disrupts our Northwest ecosystem, its annual temperatures and when and how much precipitation in rain and snow falls. And those concerns have focused attention now on the dams and the salmon of the Snake River, the 1,078-mile tributary that meets with the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities in the state’s southeast corner and extends across Idaho into Montana.
Among the 15 dams on portions of the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Washington state, four dams — built from the 1960s until 1975 — are found on the Snake: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.
Among the runs of salmon in Washington state that are listed as either threatened or endangered four of them return to the Snake River to end and begin their life cycle. And in the years during and after the lower Snake Dams were built and began operation, the seasonal returns of salmon and steelhead have declined precipitously.
On the Environmental Protection Agency’s “threatened” list since 1992, spring and summer chinook, which have a recovery goal of 127,000 fish each year, have managed fluctuating returns in recent years between 23,680 and 38,683 fish, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. For steelhead, also considered threatened, and with a recovery goal of 104,500 fish, the numbers have bounced between 24,410 and 74,097. And for “endangered” sockeye, with a recovery goal of 9,000 fish, the numbers have spanned from up to 162 salmon but as few as 17.
Dams or salmon? For several years now, conservation and tribal groups have suggested removing the four lower Snake River dams to give salmon — who would still have to cope with four dams on the lower Columbia between Oregon and Washington — a better shot at survival. But that proposal has alarmed many in the Northwest, especially in the state’s southeast corner. While the entire region depends on the electricity that all dams provide through the federal Bonneville Power Administration, the state’s lower-right also benefits from what the lower Snake River dams provide in irrigation for agriculture, barge shipment of grain and other products, flood control and recreation.
A new draft report, requested by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is offering new perspective on the impacts of the dams’ removal and what it would cost to address those impacts: between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion. While not taking a position one way or the other on the question, the report finds that removing the dams offers the best chance to aid salmon recovery on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers and would increase fish for tribal, commercial and sporting needs and meet the federal government’s treaty responsibilities to the region’s tribes and their ability to fish in their traditional grounds.
Ultimately, any decision on removal would be at the discretion of Congress, yet the possibilities and potential drawbacks and benefits are being discussed now.
A bad time to lose any dam: There are doubts — even at the costs cited — that the electricity that the dams produce can be replaced and meet the goals set for a clean-energy future, said Kurt Miller.
Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, an advocacy group that includes public and other not-for-profit utilities in the West, including Snohomish Public Utility District, as well as transportation and agricultural groups. RiverPartners recently has undertaken a high-profile advertising campaign, urging that the dams be kept running for decades to come.
“No one has ever looked at what it will take to achieve Oregon and Washington’s clean-energy law requirements, and then looked at what role the lower Snake River dams have in that achievement,” Miller said. “You have to understand how these resources all interact together if you want to understand what it takes to replace the dams.”
RiverPartners recently commissioned a report that has found that it would cost $15 billion to build the generation plants necessary to replace the four dams. And that task would be daunting. The two states’ goals for a carbon-neutral grid by 2045 will require a build-out of 160,000 megawatts, the report found. Removing the four Snake dams would require finding an additional 14,900 megawatts above that.
“It was a bit of a frustration when we read the draft Murray-Inslee report, that basically the report intimates that hydropower is going to become less important because we’re going to be adding all these renewables,” Miller said.
The reverse is true, he said. Even with the welcomed addition of wind and solar and other potential technologies, he said, solar and wind depend on the sun shining and the wind blowing. Hydropower is necessary to smooth out the intermittent drops in supply from those sources.
Pessimism or optimism: RiverPartners’ outlook is too pessimistic a take for Nancy Hirsh, executive director for the Northwest Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental, civic and human service organizations. Among quickly developing technologies that could replace the dams’ energy services, large-scale batteries, such as those being developed by Snohomish PUD, could be key in smoothing out the intermittent drops in power from wind and solar.
“We can do this. There are benefits that outweigh the costs and with proper planning and time we can make the investments that actually improve the system over what we have,” said Hirsh, who has spent her career studying and advocating for investments in energy efficiency and renewable resources. “We might actually better meet our needs.”
“Can we replace the energy services? I’m pretty confident we can,” she said.
Northwest Energy Coalition had its own study done and found that the work already is well underway. The consulting firm Energy Strategies looked at BPA’s resource portfolio for proposed projects for electrical generation. After subtracting projects whose energy already is “spoken for” by utilities and those projects unlikely to produce a watt, the study still found that only 12 percent of what’s now in the queue is needed to replace what the Snake dams currently generate.
And the hydro-power of the four Snake dams also is not certain. The dams, when river levels are low or water temperatures are too warm for fish, are often required to “spill” water to aid salmon. That cuts into the energy the dams can produce, though RiverPartner’s Miller noted that such spills usually occur when electricity demand is at its lowest.
Again, Hirsh said, those assumptions can’t be relied upon as global warming alters climate.
“We can’t compare the replacement costs to the status quo, because the status quo is changing,” she said.
What is changing are the advancements in carbon-neutral energy generation, in how that energy is used and in its costs. What’s needed is a fair comparison of what different methods of generating electricity are capable of and their costs — both in dollars and in impacts to the environment — relative to the energy they produce
“We don’t think this is simple, a no-brainer or easy and ‘of course we can,’” Hirsh said. “But we’re not even at this point putting our shoulder into it.”
Will removing the dams help salmon, though? While scores of biologists and environmentalists are convinced — as is the Murray-Inlsee report — that removing the dams will open up spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead and result in increases in returns, a Canadian fisheries biologist, who is advising RiverPartners, has his doubts; and some troubling data.
“The simple truth is that everywhere has bad salmon survival,” said David Welch, who has previously worked for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and headed the agency’s High Seas Salmon Program. “People are being too myopic at looking at just the dams for fixing the Snake River salmon problems.”
“The Columbia and Snake system has high survival for smolts going out, but what happens is they have very bad survival by the time they come back,” he said.
Welch collected data for his own paper in 2008 that compared the survival of salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers to that on the Fraser River, British Columbia’s longest river, flowing into the Strait of Georgia, just south of Vancouver, B.C. What Welch found was that salmon survival rates were better for the Columbia and Snake than they were for the Fraser, which has no dams on its mainstream. That study’s findings have since been corroborated by others, he said.
“It’s not very likely that breaching the dams on the Snake River is going to be effective if the same survival problems are occurring in other rivers that don’t have dams,” he said.
What’s needed, Welch said, is more focus on climate change and what’s happening during the rest of the salmon’s migration, particularly in the Pacific Ocean. Currently, very little is being invested in addressing those questions.
And removing the dams — if they are contributing to reducing carbon emissions — will be counterproductive for climate change and for salmon, he said.
What’s owed to tribes: For Alyssa Macy, removal of the Snake dams still represents what may be the last best chance to keep salmon swimming in the Snake.
“So much money has been put into salmon restoration and fish passage and it hasn’t moved the needle as it needs to,” said Macy, chief executive for the Washington Conservation Voters. “We’re at a point where it hasn’t worked out the way we want it too, and this is the next option to look at.”
What removing the dams represents, said Macy, who is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, is an opportunity to imagine what the Snake River system could look like with 140 miles of free-flowing river restored and 14,000 acres of riparian habitat and bottomlands regained. As well, it represents new clean energy sources to replace the dams, the jobs it can generate and what it would mean to see salmon numbers grow rather than decline.
“Salmon are a part of our culture, part of our life ways, a part of our spiritual beliefs. And salmon are a very important economic driver in the state of Washington,” she said.
Removing the dams also could help meet a responsibility and a treaty obligation owed to the states’ tribes.
While not on the Snake River, Celilo Falls, a system of falls and cataracts on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, is among the natural treasures and ancestral fishing grounds for tribes — including among the Warm Springs Confederation — that were lost to the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
“In the calculations that were made to build dams, the impact to my people was never taken into consideration. And that is an injustice,” Macy said. “We will never get Celilo Falls back, but to get a little bit of justice would go a long way.”
Even so, this is not just “an Indian thing,” Macy said. “It’s an everybody in the state of Washington thing.”
A future for salmon and power: The report commissioned by Murray and Inslee is clear that even in drawing the conclusion that removing the dams offers the best hope for survival of Snake River salmon, it is not a recommendation for one course of action or another.
And it further stresses that no dam should be removed until alternatives are in place for their energy, irrigation and transportation benefits.
What that commitment provides is assurance and a directive that work needs to begin now to make those transitions with the hope that we won’t come to the point where have to choose between salmon and the light switch.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the percentage of proposed generation projects for the BPA needed replace the energy produced by the four lower Snake River dams. The study found that the electricity produced by the dams could be replaced with 12 percent of what’s in the BPA’s projects queue.