Removing Lower Snake River dams offers best chance for salmon recovery — at steep price, report says

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1 of 2 The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, seen in May 2019. How much would breaching the four Lower Snake River dams cost? A new report analyzes the cost for transportation, energy and agriculture. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 2 Advocates of dam breaching demonstrate outside the Salmon Orca Summit at Little Creek Casino in Shelton in July 2021. Tribes from around the Pacific Northwest joined with U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in calling for dam removal on the Lower Snake River to protect orcas and salmon. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

If four Lower Snake River dams were breached to support salmon recovery, the energy, irrigation, recreation and other benefits they provide to the Pacific Northwest could be replaced for $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion, according to a draft report released Thursday by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The report does not take a position on whether the hydropower dams should be removed, but finds that breaching offers the best chance to recover salmon runs in the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers, boost fishing opportunity and meet federal responsibilities to treaty tribes that ceded their lands to the U.S. government under terms that guaranteed their access to fish in their traditional territories.

Commissioned by Inslee and Murray, the report enters a highly charged and long-running political fight over the future of the dams in southeastern Washington. It also comes as salmon returns to the Columbia and Snake are struggling for survival amid reduced summer and fall river flows, due to increased drought and reduced snowpack because of climate change.

The report calculated the costs of replacing the dams’ benefits in current dollars and analyzed them spread out over a 50-year time frame. The analysis of major areas of benefits from the dams, and impacts of their removal, include: barge transportation for 100 miles from the Tri-Cities to Lewiston, Idaho; hydroelectric generation that boosts the reliability of the power grid and provides enough carbon-free energy to power a city the size of Seattle; irrigation, mostly for very large farms; and tourism and recreation. The report also looked at the impacts of the dams on species, tribes and recreational and commercial fisheries.

One of the biggest challenges would be replacing the lost power generation. One 2020 federal estimate cited in the new draft report put that cost at $9.3 billion to $18.6 billion, with the high-end estimate for generation that does not release any carbon emissions.

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Any dam-breaching effort would reduce the amount of renewable energy produced in the region as Washington and other West Coast states attempt a major transition away from generating electricity from fossil fuels. The report states that replacement power “must be in place and demonstrating that it is producing energy” before dam breaching to avoid “significant impacts” to the region’s electrical grid and the communities that depend on it.

A public comment period on the report will end July 11. After public input, tribal consultation and other engagement, the report will be updated and released in final form by July 30. Murray and Inslee will then make their recommendations on the future of the four dams, they said in a joint statement.

“We continue to approach the question of breaching with open minds and without a predetermined decision,” Murray and Inslee stated.

Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, which has treaty fishing rights on the Lower Snake and Columbia, said the report did what the tribe hoped: stating fairly and accurately the risks to salmon of the status quo, and the possibility of an equitable dam-removal strategy that benefits salmon and the region.

“It is saying what we have been saying all along, that salmon need help, and it is time for leadership to step up,” Wheeler said. “We can’t sit and wait and study this another three years with a task force that is kicking the can down the road and that is leading to extinction.”

The report stipulates that if breaching is recommended, it would still have to be authorized by Congress and a funding strategy and timeline determined.

Some predicted congressional authorization was a non-starter, making the report moot.

“I don’t see the current Congress ever accepting any of this; it will never happen. I don’t know why they bothered,” said Darryll Olsen, board representative of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, which supports a two-dam drawdown on the Lower Snake, an alternative not analyzed in the report.

A broad coalition of river users who benefit from the dams has long opposed their removal.

In the run-up to the release of this report, they have been on high alert to respond to what they see as a new potential threat to the dams. And Northwest RiverPartners, with a membership that includes public utility districts as well as ports and other groups, has been running an advertising campaign that includes television and radio spots touting the benefits of the dams.

“One of the things that we’re really concerned about is that there is potentially going to be a decision here that will completely impact the future of affordability and grid reliability,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners.

After decades of litigation, reports, and analysis of the Lower Snake River dams and salmon survival, it is time for action, said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save our Wild Salmon Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for dam removal on the Lower Snake and salmon recovery.

“We have put ourselves in a really tight spot; salmon populations are in strong decline and the vise of climate change has increased the urgency,” Bogaard said. “We have to figure out the details of a plan and begin to implement it very quickly and do so in a manner that everyone who is connected by these species can live with.”

The Lower Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. The four dams built on the Lower Snake were the last built in the Federal Columbia River Power System, with Lower Granite, the inland-most dam on the Lower Snake River, completed in 1975.

The federal system comprises 31 dams in the basin that together generate a third of the power in the Northwest.

The dams are operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Bonneville Power Administration sells power from the dams to the Western U.S. grid, including customers all over the Northwest.

The federal system has a maximum generating potential of 17,462 megawatts. The four Lower Snake River Dams represent 3,033 megawatts of the federal capacity, and in an average year, the dams operate at about a third of that capacity, according to the Bonneville Power Administration.

The dams have helped power the growth of the region. But that economic engine has run at the expense of salmon, which continue to decline despite more than $24 billion in ratepayer money spent from 1980-2018 on improvements to fish passage at the dams and other recovery actions, according to the report.

Salmon and steelhead have declined by more than 90% of their pre-dam natural abundance in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The dams are just one cause of that decline: Chinook are in steep decline in rivers across the West Coast, including in comparatively pristine rivers without dams, according to a recently published scientific paper. But on the Columbia and Snake, the impact of the dams is significant. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Center estimated the survival rate for migrating juvenile salmon through all eight dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake and Columbia at 52.5% for spring Chinook and 50% for steelhead.

Today more than 40% of wild Snake River spring/summer Chinook populations are at a quasi-extinction threshold, with fewer than 50 adult fish coming back in each of the past five years, and 12 runs of salmon and steelhead are at risk of extinction. The Snake River Basin used to support about 50% of the Chinook and steelhead in the entire Columbia River Basin.

Chinook are crucial not only to people but to wildlife, including endangered southern resident orcas, which rely on Chinook from the Columbia and Snake as part of their diet.

Analysis by federal and tribal scientists shows breaching the Lower Snake dams would significantly improve passage for salmon, steelhead and lamprey and increase tribal harvest by nearly 30% annually — and have the highest likelihood of removing salmon from Endangered Species Act listings and meeting treaty obligations compared to any other alternative, according to the report.

Tribes from across the region have united in support for dam removal on the Lower Snake.

Restoring fisheries to the basin also could generate up to $1 billion in recreational fishing in rural communities, according to the report.

Constraints on river operations and generating capacity of the dams are already underway due to climate warming.

Federal courts may further restrict energy production on the dams by mandating an increased spill of water over the dams rather than through the turbines, to increase flows for out-migrating juvenile fish.

Other changes to meet water-temperature standards also are coming. Today, temperatures reach lethal levels in the summer in dam reservoirs. A mass fish kill of sockeye occurred in the lower Columbia in 2015 because of high water temperatures.

Online comments can be submitted through the project website: https://www.lsrdoptions.org/. Emailed comments can be sent to info@lsrdoptions.org with the email subject line “Draft LSRD Benefit Replacement Study.”

Lynda V. Mapes: lmapes@seattletimes.com; . Lynda specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history and Native American tribes.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com; .