Northwest RiverPartners is ratcheting up its opposition to dam breaching as three federal agencies prepare to release a long-term review of 14 dams in the Columbia River basin.
The Vancouver-based group, which represents utilities, ports, farmers and businesses, argues that dam removal would lead to power blackouts and have a disproportional effect on lower-income communities.
“People really need to consider the social justice component of hydroelectricity in getting to the clean energy future we all desire,” Kurt Miller, Northwest RiverPartners executive director, said Monday.
California has had rolling blackouts because Pacific Gas and Electric Co. neglected to upgrade its power transmission and distribution system and sparked a series of deadly wildfires, Miller said. Now Californians with higher incomes have installed solar panels, batteries and generators while those of lesser means must endure the preventative blackouts, he said.
“They are getting to the point where they are creating a two-class power grid,” he said, predicting the same could happen in the Northwest.
Miller said the Tri-Cities area, where one-third of the population identifies itself as Hispanic, is particularly susceptible to negative effects of dam breaching.
“That community in Tri-Cities is very dependent on the lower Snake River dams for irrigation for agriculture, for power supply for electricity, even for drinking water,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are scheduled to issue a draft environmental impact statement on 14 federal hydropower sites along the Columbia and Snake rivers in February. Following a public comment period and evaluation of comments, a final environmental impact statement would be released in June 2020, with the process to be completed with a formal decision in September 2020.
The study could provide ammunition to those who believe breaching four dams on the lower Snake River — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite — is essential for salmon recovery.
Environmentalists say the dams create physical barriers for migrating salmon and steelhead. Reservoirs behind the dams are quick to warm during summer weather, depriving fish of the cold water they need.
Miller, however, said climate change and ocean conditions have played a greater role in the demise of salmon.
“We defer to the science,” he said. “The science basically says that breaching those dams will not bring back healthy salmon populations.”
Miller said federal agencies already have spent billions to improve fish passage at dams.
“I definitely would not say the dams have no effect, but they don’t have enough effect to restore healthy salmon populations, or the breaching would not,” he said.
Both the science and economics of dam breaching are contentious. In July, the consulting firm ECONorthwest released a study, paid for by the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., that concluded the economic consequences of removing the four Snake River dams would be more than offset by the environmental and recreational benefits.
“A careful exploration of the range of economic tradeoffs based on publicly available data suggests the benefits of removal exceed the costs, and thus society would likely be better off without the dams,” the report says.
The report concludes that power generated by the four dams should not be the primary consideration.
“The lower Snake River dams supply a small share of the energy needs for the Pacific Northwest region and account for less power than BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) currently exports to other regions, primarily California,” the report says. “With cheaper renewable energy sources entering the market, the conventional wisdom of hydropower generating the lowest-cost electricity is no longer accurate.”
The report was widely criticized by breaching opponents, including Miller, U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and business groups, including the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.
Columbia River dams
Although the Snake River dams have received the most attention, others are advocating for removing Columbia River dams.
Last month, two Northwest tribes, the Yakama Nation and the Lummi Nation, called for removing three dams on the lower Columbia River — Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day — to boost salmon recovery and help southern resident killer whales.
“We definitely respect the Yakama Nation and the Lummi Nation,” Miller said. “At the same time, we think the real issue with salmon on the Columbia River and Snake River is really driven by climate crisis.”
Miller said his Northwest RiverPartners supports some breaching, namely dams that don’t provide fish passage or “a strong socio-economic benefit to communities.”
An example was the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in and near Olympic National Park, he said.
“We weren’t opposed to that breaching because those dams didn’t serve a real purpose,” he said.