Snake and Columbia River dams: Controversy rages between renewable hydroelectric advocates and extremists seeking to remove dams

BACKGROUND: Environmental impact statement

After years of efforts by special interest groups to breach the Snake River dams in Washington, a final environmental impact statement (EIS) was released by federal agencies on July 31, 2020. The preferred alternative recommended the four Lower Snake River dams – Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite – remain in place.

The EIS investigated how 14 dams in the Columbia River System Operations (CRSO) affect fish survival. It also considered how removing or altering the Lower Snake River dams would affect social and economic changes, including irrigation, barging and power generation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) received nearly 59,000 comments on the draft EIS before the plan was completed.

In the final analysis, the study concluded that while “breaching of the Lower Snake River projects would have major long-term beneficial effects to resident fish in the Snake River,” it would also threaten the state’s energy grid reliability and “has the highest adverse impacts to other resources, especially social and economic effects.”

Why are the Snake/Columbia River dams important?

ELECTRICAL POWER GENERATION

The EIS said the dams play an important role in maintaining reliability in the carbon-free production of power used to supply baseload generation across the Pacific Northwest. Nearly 60% of energy produced in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana comes from hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which generate carbon-free electricity.

Breaching the dams would decrease hydropower generation by nearly 1,000 megawatts. The dams also supply nearly a quarter of the region’s power reserves holding capacity and provide needed power when intermittent sources, such as wind and solar, cannot. This is important because demands for electrical generation can happen instantaneously – especially in winter months.

The report said dam removal would require building significant quantities of replacement resources to maintain regional power reliability. The EIS cautioned if the dams are removed, “the region would face the likelihood of a loss of load event, e.g., a power blackout, nearly one in every seven years.” Plus, electricity rates could increase as much as 25%.

During the record heatwave of June 2021, BPA credited its Ice Harbor Dam with preventing power outages and rolling blackouts in the Tri-Cities. Without all four of the lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington, BPA says powering through the heatwave would have been much more expensive and challenging.

The federal study also says breaching the dams would have major adverse effects on transportation. Each Snake River dam has a navigational lock that allows inland farmers access to international markets. More than 3.9 million tons of cargo was barged on the Snake River in 2019. More than 40,000 local jobs are dependent on this trade, with more than $21 billion in cargo value.

The Snake River is particularly important to Northwest wheat farmers. Each year, the dams make it possible for nearly 40% of all U.S. wheat exports to move in the most fuel-efficient, safest, lowest emission type of cargo transportation – barging.

IRRIGATION FOR AGRICULTURE

The EIS noted that if the dams were breached, ground water elevations would drop up to 100 feet in some areas. Farmers who pump water could lose the ability to irrigate nearly 48,000 acres, leading to millions of dollars in lost income and agricultural output.

Why do breaching efforts continue despite agreements?

Biological opinion supports leaving dams in place

In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and its Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee convened the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force. The task force developed a set of goals for recovery of Columbia Basin wild salmon in its final report.

When the final EIS was released, NOAA completed its “biological opinion” or “BiOp” plan for endangered salmon. It supported leaving the dams in place.

The federal agencies also recommended more spill over several dams to help juvenile fish migrate to the Pacific Ocean. A 2019 agreement allows for flexible spills that balance needs of fish and hydropower.

Barge loading wheat along Snake River

Agreements reached

On Sept. 28, 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and BPA signed a joint Record of Decision (ROD) which commits the agencies to implementing immediate and long-term actions related to the ongoing operations, maintenance, and configuration of 14 federal dams that compose the Columbia River System, including the four Lower Snake River dams. The ROD supports a balance of dam operations and ongoing and new improvements for endangered species.

Surprisingly, environmental and river conservation organizations and the U.S. hydropower industry announced in October 2020 an agreement on the coexistence of dams and environmental concerns. The parties agreed to work together to address a range of challenges, including licensing/relicensing, dam safety, and advancing renewable energy and storage benefits of hydropower and economic benefits of healthy rivers.

Simultaneously, the governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana announced the creation of a four-state collaborative process to restore a healthy salmon population, without adversely impacting affordable electricity and local economies.

Lawsuits seek to unravel EIS agreement

After Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed this four-state collaborative agreement, she filed a lawsuit over the federal government’s management of the four lower Snake River dams. The suit calls for injunctive relief, including 24-hour maximum spillovers at all eight Columbia and Snake River dams. One Oregon electric cooperative said, “through her actions, the governor dismissed the EIS before giving it a chance.” Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers added, “Tossing what was billed as a collaborative process aside to pursue yet another obstructive lawsuit means abandoning the hard work necessary to recover salmon.”

Other opponents unwilling to accept the EIS’s preferred alternative are also suing. In January 2021, Earthrise Law Center, working with Earthjustice, an environmental law organization based in San Francisco, California, filed a supplemental complaint with the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, alleging the EIS, the BiOp, and the joint ROD, violate the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The plaintiffs hope to force the federal government to reconsider recommendations against breaching the Lower Snake River dams.

Dam breaching efforts continue

In February 2021, Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson released a $33 billion proposal that would authorize removal of the four dams, provide funds to shippers and farmers for alternatives to barge shipping, remove the port in Lewiston, Idaho, provide economic development money to Lewiston and the Tri-Cities, and ban litigation over the four Columbia River dams for 35 years. No funding, however, was contained in the federal infrastructure bill for Simpson’s proposal.

In Oct. 2021, Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray announced a process to restore salmon runs in the state, including an in-depth study of potentially replacing the four Lower Snake River dams. Also in 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the “Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative” (CBRI) to develop plans with tribes and stakeholders to restore Columbia River Basin salmon.

A draft of the CBRI Confidential Mediation Document was leaked in November 2023 suggesting the possibility of dam breaching as one of initiative options.

Quotes in the document that back this suggestion include:

“The NOAA report clarified the urgency of the situation, stating that, given the current status of salmon populations, ‘the science robustly supports riverscape-scale process-based stream habitat restoration, dam removal (breaching), and ecosystem-based management, [and] overwhelmingly supports acting and acting now.”

“While this USG (United States Government) response does not constitute a decision by the USG to support legislation to authorize dam breaching, the USG continues to be committed to exploring restoration of the Lower Snake River, including dam breach, and views Governor Inslee and Senator Murray’s recommendations as providing important guidance. To that end, the USG is prepared to deliver the commitments below, in partnership with the Six Sovereigns and other stakeholders in the region, to make headway on the objectives in the CBRI.”

In December 2023, the White House announced a 10-year partnership with tribes and states “to restore wild salmon populations, expand Tribally sponsored clean energy production, and provide stability for communities that depend on the Columbia River System.” 

Inside the Ice Harbor Dam navigational lock — Snake River

What about environmental concerns?

Dam removal won’t save orcas

Southern Resident orcas spend most of their time in the coastal inland waters of the Salish Sea. As a result, a NOAA Fisheries analysis showed that Chinook from the rivers that feed into Salish Sea—not the Columbia or Snake rivers which drain directly into the Pacific Ocean—are the top priority salmon stock for Southern Resident orcas. NOAA asserts salmon losses are largely due to unfavorably warm ocean conditions, adding, “No salmon recovery effort on a single river will bring about recovery of southern resident killer whales on its own.”

The myth against dams is busted: Salmon runs have risen

The Snake River Spring Chinook salmon run has continued to increase since 2019. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a joint statement, “Despite radical environmental groups trying to paint a dire picture of extinction, Spring Chinook returns are trending in the right direction for a second year in a row, providing what we already know: dams and salmon can – and do – coexist.”

Where do we go from here?

SOLUTIONS: Alternatives to dam breaching and increasing salmon runs

There are more effective ways to restoring and preserving Northwest salmon:

  • Fix the Puget Sound wastewater disposal and industrial runoff problem
    The Department of Ecology says excess nutrients from domestic wastewater treatment plants are stressing aquatic life in the Puget Sound. Many parts of Puget Sound have oxygen levels below what marine life needs to thrive. The Sound is considered an “impaired” water body, not meeting water quality levels. Millions of gallons of untreated stormwater and raw sewage have been repeatedly spilled into Puget Sound from municipal wastewater treatment plants in Seattle and along the Sound’s coastline during rainfall. These spills are an enormous threat to salmon, public health, and the environment. Shockingly, the Washington Department of Ecology recently proposed a new general pollution permit that would allow 58 sewage treatment plants to continue to pollute Puget Sound and jeopardize salmon stocks. In 2021, 10 Puget Sound area beaches were closed due to fecal contamination after a sewage spill.
  • Address urban heat island issues that create warm water discharges
    Salmon thrive in cool waters and are stressed by warm water. Urban heat islands along the Puget Sound can warm salmon-bearing streams and rivers. Urban heat islands occur when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat. Coastal cities, such as Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, heat the atmosphere – not from carbon – but from city heat absorption. Seattle can be up to 17 degrees warmer than surrounding rural areas in the summer. Waterways are impacted from warm stormwater runoff, and this affects critical habitat for salmon. One solution is Rep. Mary Dye’s House Bill 1114, which provide incentives to use heat reflective materials, plant trees and enact practices that would cool our cities and significantly reduce the impacts to our environment. This bill passed the Legislature during the 2021 session and is now law.
  • Pass House Bill 1381 concerning salmon-safe communities
    This bill from Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, would utilize the existing framework of general municipal stormwater permits for better reporting of issues that could affect salmon habitat. The measure also provides for awards to communities that monitor, report, and mitigate issues that would lead toward measurable gains toward salmon recovery.
  • Rely on proven scientific solutions
    We need to ensure cost-effective, science-based policy approaches to the region’s largest wildlife recovery effort. This includes tributary and estuary habitat restoration, actions to reduce toxic pollutants, predator management, research into the impacts of ocean conditions on the life cycle, enhanced hatcheries management, fisheries oversight, and research on the reintroduction of salmon above the Hells Canyon Complex in Idaho.
Bonneville Dam on Columbia River

CONCLUSION

We all recognize the importance of salmon to the Pacific Northwest. These fish are vital to the ecosystem of our region and the food chain in our rivers, and waterways throughout Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

Salmon have also been a part of the Pacific Northwest culture for thousands of years, as well as the economies of the region from ancient Indian trade routes to modern commercial fishing. Preserving our salmon populations is vital to our way of life. No one wishes to see this change. However, salmon preservation must be accomplished using solid scientific data and proven evidence, not emotional anecdotes, such as promoting breaching of dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, which would be devastating to other vital segments of Pacific Northwest economies and livelihoods.

As House Environment and Energy Committee ranking member Rep. Mary Dye noted: “We have now had a legitimate, transparent, and scientifically rigorous process to develop an Environmental Impact Statement. The Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation, and NOAA Fisheries have agreed on a preferred path to manage the Columbia River System in a way that balances the interests in salmon survival, food production and trade, clean power generation, and recreation. The time has come for pragmatism, cooperation and coordination and to reject radical plans with all the uncertainty they entail.”

The four-year EIS study recognizes dams and salmon are important to our socio-economic way of life today. The dams changed our rural communities. Both our farm and forest dependent communities, and tribal neighbors who historically suffered prejudice and injustice, have benefited from the opportunities provided through low-cost electricity and a navigable river highway (Marine Highway 84 or “M-84). They created more sustainable industries, better jobs, and new entrepreneurial opportunities for the tribes.

Revenues generated from the dams have funded decades of investment in state-of-the-art fish bypass facilities and hatchery systems. From the initial installation of weirs and screens in the early 1990s to the new fish diversion systems added recently, salmon populations have improved.

With proper management of the dams, salmon are returning in our waterways, but it is critical for Washingtonians including and our tribal friends to have the benefits of reliable, renewable electricity and the other benefits provided by our Snake and Columbia River dams.