Stepankowsky Chronicle: Removing the Snake River Dam is Still a Bad Idea | Columnists

Later this summer, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and U.S. Senator Patty Murray will weigh in on an issue that has plagued the Northwest for more than a quarter century.

Should the lower four hydroelectric dams of the Snake River be breached to help restore endangered and threatened salmon migrations?


Let’s hope that common sense prevails and that both leaders walk away from this radical and extremely expensive idea.

The stakes are high: the four dams generate enough electricity to power around 900,000 homes. Their locks allow grain, lumber, and other cargo to be shipped between lower Columbia ports and the Rocky Mountain region. They are essential to the operation of the North West electrical grid.

On the other side is the preservation of hardy, once plentiful species of salmon that swim 700 miles or more twice in their lifetime, have helped feed generations of natives, and are an essential part of the economy. and the river ecosystem.

Federal fisheries managers and hydroelectric system operators have repeatedly rejected the idea of ​​dam failure, and they have been challenged by conservation groups who say hydroelectric operations endanger fish in violation of the law. on endangered species.

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It’s not an easy decision. Few problems are as complex as salmon, especially when their needs conflict with the operations of the Northwest Hydro System. Affirmations are followed by counter-assertions and counter-counter-assertions that can leave you perplexed and frustrated.

I’ve followed this issue for decades, and while my appreciation for the dam removal argument is more sympathetic, I still oppose the idea. Here’s why:

One: the price. Removing the dams would cost between $1.3 billion and $2.6 billion, and then it would take billions more to replace the electricity they generate.

A report commissioned by the governor and Murray, released last week, estimated that replacing the power, irrigation and transmission capacity that dams currently provide would cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion.

The money would be better spent on habitat restoration projects, like the recently completed $32 million project at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge east of Washougal, Washington. This 1,000-acre project — the largest wetland restoration effort on the lower Columbia — planted half a million trees and shrubs and reconnected a creek to the Columbia River. It now provides essential rearing and shelter habitat for juvenile salmon and also benefits many other species of birds, fish and mammals.

Imagine how many more of these habitat projects could be funded instead of tearing down the dams.

I doubt that a significant number of North West electric ratepayers – who paid for the dams and are also bearing the cost of removing them – would support breaking the structures.

Two: Modifications to dams to make the passage of juvenile salmonids downstream faster and safer – through turbine screening, additional water discharges and other measures – have been shown to significantly improve survival. chinook and salmon.

Salmon runs from the Snake and Columbia rivers improved steadily between 1980 and about 2015, spurred by these passage improvements, tribal hatchery programs, and favorable ocean conditions. For example, the 10-year average yield of the Chinook at the Lower Granite Dam (the highest of the four dams on the Lower Snake River) in 2010 was 83,000, down from 35,000 in 1980). Chinook returns to the Columbia system in 2015 were 1.3 million, a record for the third consecutive year.

Upwellings have since collapsed as ocean conditions declined.

Nevertheless, history shows that salmon can rebound if other factors, especially weather and ocean conditions, cooperate.

Three: Definitely, removing the dams would help the fish. Some advocacy groups believe that a doubling or tripling of races is possible.

Still, there’s room for skepticism: Even if the dams are removed, the courses of the Snake River still have to pass through the lower Columbia’s four dams. The upper Snake River would continue to be blocked for salmon by the Hells Canyon dams, and the Snake Basin’s two historically prodigious fish producers – the Salmon and Clearwater rivers – are already accessible by fish ladders on lower dams – even though some fish advocates rhetoric subtly implies that they are not.

Four: We need renewable energy from dams as we try to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and fight climate change, which is perhaps the biggest threat to salmon. Climate change affects every stage of the salmon life cycle.

True, the four Snake Dams only account for about 7% of the hydropower generated in the Columbia Basin, but every watt will be needed. The North West’s energy demand – stable for two decades – will increase as people adopt electric vehicles. The average electric car, for example, consumes as much energy as an average house.

Solar and wind are not as reliable as hydro, although battery storage technology is advancing and the cost of these sources is falling.

Five: Much work remains to be done to reduce salmon predation by sea lions, cormorants and other species.

Six: The fate of the southern Puget Sounds resident orca population does not depend on the abundance of Snake River salmon, despite attempts to link the two. Even if their numbers increased, the Snake River chinook would not make up a significant part of the killer whales’ food supply, according to federal biologists.

Even if we dismantle a small part of the hydroelectric system, the Columbia Basin salmon runs will never approach their historic highs of 10 to 20 million returning adults. So what constitutes adequate recovery – mere survival and perpetuity, or sufficient abundance to sustain a bountiful tribal and commercial fishery?

The choice is made even more difficult because some judgments cannot be made with complete scientific certainty and some factors are beyond human control.

In truth, it is a humbling question to contemplate. Admittedly, these dams should perhaps not have been built half a century ago, but that is no reason to demolish them today.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at the Daily News. He has won or shared many prestigious journalism awards, including the 1981 Pulitzer Staff Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.

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