Years and millions of dollars in the making, a draft federal report on hydroelectric dam operations in the Columbia Basin will not settle the decadeslong fight over saving imperiled salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Federal agencies found that taking out the dams would “provide a long-term benefit to species that spawn or rear in the mainstem Snake River habitats,” but also would have adverse impacts, including increased power costs, a rise in greenhouse gases and reduced reliability of the electric grid.
The report rejects the idea of removing the dams to save endangered or threatened salmon. The removal of the dams has been a rallying cry for advocates of salmon and the endangered southern resident orcas, which rely on Columbia and Snake chinook to survive. But supporters of the dams praised the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) as an important affirmation of their value in a region increasingly placing a premium on renewable electricity.
The report was called “a milestone” by Elliot Mainzer, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the hydropower and bankrolls salmon restoration at costs that have totaled nearly $18 billion.
“This was a truly regional effort, and we are especially grateful to our tribal partners for providing their perspectives and expertise on the Columbia River System,” he said in a written statement.
The report marks the sixth time federal agencies are trying to come up with an operations plan that meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act to protect salmon. Each time in the past, the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe and fishing and environmental groups have won legal challenges to the agencies’ plans.
Tom France, a National Wildlife Federation regional director, attacked the preferred option as “wholly inadequate” to bring back salmon. And Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice who has represented the Nez Perce, Oregon and other plaintiffs in litigation over the dams, called the EIS, “the same meal with more garnish.”
Once the report becomes final, it could face scrutiny in U.S. District Court from salmon advocates who say that the removal of the four Lower Snake dams is a key step in reviving salmon populations and boosting the survival prospects for the endangered southern resident orcas that feed on chinook. A warming climate has made both ocean conditions and the freshwater river environment tougher for the 13 species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
True said another lawsuit is “certainly a tool in the toolbox but is not the one we are focused on right now.” Instead, he said the task ahead is to continue the conversation already underway in the region to find a better solution than the one outlined in the draft report.
Dam removal is only one piece of the package but remains “foundational” to the recovery of the Snake River, True said.
The stakes are high as the region considers the best options for dam operations.
The four Lower Snake dams were the last built in the federal Columbia hydropower system. Completed in the 1970s, they together provide about 5% of the region’s electricity, enough to power a city about the size of Seattle.
Growers also draw water from behind one of the dams to water some of the largest orchards and vineyards in the Northwest. In addition, locks built at the dams extend a navigable waterway all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Barge transportation via the waterway is more efficient and less polluting than trucks or rail.
During the next decade the possibility of power shortages has increased as coal power production declines amid a regional push to develop cleaner and cheaper sources of electricity.
Managing the surge of wind and solar power on the grid today relies, in part, on hydropower dams like the ones on the Columbia and Snake rivers to quickly balance delivery of energy through the system as demand fluctuates. That buffering ability is expected to become more valuable in the years ahead as the Pacific Northwest shifts to a greater reliance on renewable power as coal plants are retired.
Opponents of dam removal say they want salmon runs to flourish, but question whether breaching the four major hydroelectric dams would help — and fear impacts on the reliability and cost of the power supply. The report found that breaching the dams would double the risk of a regional power shortage and could result in an up to 9.6% increase in rates to wholesale power customers as hydropower production decreased by 1,100 average megawatts.
“This is a much, much bigger issue than the Snake River salmon. If worldwide salmon populations are doing poorly because of climate change and carbon, does it make sense to tear out 1,000 average megawatts of carbon-free electricity,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which represents utilities, ports, industry and agricultural interests. “For so many reasons, it’s bad public policy.”
The four Lower Snake River dams have long been obstacles to salmon that return to spawn in streams and rivers — and to their offspring, which seek to make a long freshwater migration to the sea.
Snake River salmon are among the 13 Columbia Basin runs federally listed as endangered or threatened since 1991 which despite nearly $18 billion spent on the world’s largest fish and wildlife restoration program have not recovered. The region is facing another poor chinook season this year after a string of better years, especially 2015, that raised hopes. Long term, recovery rates have remained far below recommended targets to beat extinction. Meanwhile, the population of southern resident orcas has declined to 72 whales, the lowest since 1976. In the nearly 8,000-page report, orcas get scant mention.
The impacts of removing the Lower Snake dams have been studied for decades.
In its review of the last EIS in 2000, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake the most reliable path toward salmon recovery and survival. The agency is in charge of both salmon and orca recovery.
“By reducing the effects of one type of human activity, breaching the four Lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term survival and recovery than would other measures,” the agency found — but stopped short of requiring breaching.
More recently, orca and salmon scientists in a letter to the region’s governors and congressional delegation on Feb. 20 said a review of the science shows dam removal is the best chance for recovering Columbia and Snake salmon.
The EIS released Friday noted different forecasts for improved survival rates of young Snake River salmon that result from different assumptions about the numbers of fish that die during passage through the Columbia River system.
The preferred alternative includes improvements at some basin dams to help the passage of lamprey and for more efforts to spill water over the dams to help young fish migrate to the ocean.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown voiced support for demolishing the Lower Snake dams in a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee this month.
The call for regional dialogue also comes from Debra Smith, general manager of Seattle City Light, which purchases electricity from the hydropower system. She noted the challenges of balancing the environmental, social and economic impacts of management of the hydroelectric system and said, “It is our responsibility to join forces, to learn from our differences and work through the issues to resolution.”
A 45-day public comment period on the draft report is now underway and some are planning to speak with their feet.
Orca and salmon advocates have planned a 236-mile, 23-day March for the Dams from Portland to Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco. “We are hoping this event will inspire the elected officials to listen to the informed public who want more than anything to save the southern resident killer whales in this race against extinction,” said Snow McCormick, of the nonprofit PNW Protectors.
A final report — including the agencies’ final decision — is expected in September. NOAA will then determine in a biological opinion if it meets the standard of species protection.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.