A draft of the “Lower Snake River Dams Benefit Replacement Report,” requested by Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee last fall, recently was released to the public.
While intended to make the case for breaching the four dams between Clarkston and the Tri-Cities, the report ironically makes a good case for keeping the dams in place. (Comment on it by 5 p.m. July 11 by going here.)
The report estimates it would cost between $10 billion and $27 billion to replace the benefits provided by the four dams. Knowing how government projects usually go over budget, we expect the total cost to replace the dams’ many benefits would exceed that range.
The study also touches on several benefits provided by the four dams and the consequences if they were removed:
Power generation: It notes the four dams produce about 11% of the total power produced in Bonneville Power Administration’s entire system. And it’s clean hydroelectric energy.
Much greater demand for electricity is expected in the future. Alternative energy sources don’t provide the steady foundation the Northwest needs to make its power grid work. Wind doesn’t blow all the time, so it can’t generate power at all hours. Solar power is generated only when the sun is up. Though the cost to generate wind and solar has dropped, hydropower is still less expensive. And though the report talks about potential advances in power storage technology, until vast energy storage for wind and solar is reality, it would be foolish to remove the four dams and the stable, consistent energy they provide. One more thing: The power generated by these dams funds fish and wildlife projects around the region.
Irrigation: The report says the four dams’ reservoirs support irrigation on about 50,000 acres of farmland in southeastern Washington. If the dams are breached, the groundwater level is expected to drop by up to 100 feet. Groundwater wells would need to be deepened and outfitted, which would be very expensive.
Before the dams, western Walla Walla County was not farmable due to arid conditions. Now it is some of the most productive farmland in the county and has the largest apple orchard in the U.S. The Department of Ecology has not issued a new deep-basalt irrigation permit in more than 25 years. Irrigation from the four dams cannot be replaced and the state’s economy will suffer.
Transportation: The locks on the four Lower Snake Dams allow barges carrying wheat to travel downriver to ports in Portland and beyond. Barges transport wheat more economically than trucks or trains, and they emit far less carbon than them, too. Other items, including forest products, petroleum, fertilizer and oversized equipment, are shipped upriver. If the dams were breached, barges could no longer reach Lewiston, which would mean more trains and trucks would be needed to haul wheat to the Tri-Cities or ports closer to the ocean. The end result would be higher shipping costs, more pollution, and more wear and tear on highways. Millions of dollars would need to be spent on improving and creating new short-line railroads to make up for the loss of barge traffic.
Tourism: The report notes the cruise-boat industry has brought tourists and their money (a $4 million economic impact in 2019) to the Lewis-Clark Valley region over the past 20 years. If the dams are breached, those tour boats won’t be able to reach Lewiston. The report says America Cruise Lines has indicated it would end operations on the Columbia Snake River System instead of switching to a shorter cruise ending in the Tri-Cities.
It is no surprise the report says the dams’ removal would increase the number of salmon and other fish in the Snake River and its tributaries. Our concern is, what if breaching the four dams doesn’t significantly improve salmon numbers on the Snake? Other factors have hurt West Coast salmon numbers, including pollution, warmer ocean temperatures and predators like sea lions that feast on salmon below Bonneville Dam.
The Environmental Impact Statement released in 2020 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration recommended changes in dam spill rates to allow passage of migratory fish rather than breaching the four dams.
While still listed under the Endangered Species Act, it’s also worth noting that adult spring chinook counts at Bonneville Dam (on the Columbia) and Lower Granite Dam (on the Snake) this year have been nearly double the five-year average count, and the 2022 count at Lower Granite is the highest since the early 1970s.
It would be outrageous and inexcusable if the federal government spent tens of billions of our tax dollars on a very ambitious, overreaching project like breaching these four dams, one that would greatly affect an entire region, only to discover there is no or little increase in salmon runs on the Snake River.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.