More than a dozen years ago, I was part of the team at PacifiCorp, the owner of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, that was working to obtain a new federal operating license for the dam that was built in 1913. After years of legal wrangling and collaborating, an agreement was reached to remove it. The decision to remove it was a business one; the dam was not equipped with fish ladders, and the costs to customers of bringing the project up to modern standards was simply too high.
On Oct. 26, a hole was blown in the base of the dam, the lake behind it drained, and a different era ensued on the White Salmon River. The event also should give us reason to think about the tremendous value hydropower still brings to the northwest.
The occasion generated tears and cheers. The dam had reliably and affordably provided clean energy to power and warm homes and businesses through the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and our recent recession. It also helped minimize and prevent downstream flooding, and it could have continued to perform these critical services for many years to come. Only time will tell whether significant benefits accrue to salmon, ostensibly the prime reason for removal, since the amount and quality of habitat in the White Salmon is not great. But I hope the salmon return.
Today, as executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, I advocate for the federal hydropower system on the Columbia River and Snake River dams on behalf of families and businesses that depend on them for clean, reliable power, flood protection, food, and an ingenious river navigation system that contributes $19 billion in trade, commerce and thousands of jobs.
Anti-dam activists were quick to use the event at Condit Dam to ramp up their calls for removal of the Snake River dams. This is where I draw a line and point out that there simply is no comparing Condit or other small, antique dams with the larger, more modernized facilities in the federal system.
For starters, the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers give us a lot of energy — more than 4,400 megawatts — enough to power four cities the size of Seattle. Hydropower is a clean, nonpolluting, renewable source of energy that makes us far less dependent than the rest of the country on electricity from coal, natural gas or nuclear plants. As a result, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, our “carbon footprint” is about half that of the rest of the nation.
But the dams’ contributions don’t stop there.
Our hydropower system played a critical role this past spring, as in past years, in protecting Portland and Vancouver from potentially devastating flooding. It also provides vital irrigation to farmers in Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon to grow the crops that feed Northwest residents and are exported to the world.
And, as we all know, the wind doesn’t always blow but the rivers always flow. Hydropower is consistent and fills in the energy gap when wind turbines are not spinning.
In addition, let’s not forget that we are getting salmon safely around these structures and reclaiming natural spawning areas in river tributaries with a massive investment in habitat improvement. These efforts for salmon are working; this decade we’ve seen some of the strongest salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers in years.
The removal of old, outmoded dams in the Northwest provides the opportunity to reflect on the benefits that our federal hydropower system brings to our everyday lives and this region. Dams and salmon can coexist, and it is up to us to remain staunch stewards of both of these prized Northwest resources.
Terry Flores is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners (http://www.nwriverpartners.org), an alliance of utilities, ports, farmers and businesses that promotes the economic and environmental benefits of the Columbia and Snake Rivers and salmon restoration policies based in sound science.