As dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers come under increasing scrutiny, it is essential to note the positive impact those dams have had on the Northwest.
Inexpensive, reliable, clean, renewable electricity has been essential to growing the region’s economy for more than 70 years. The dams have provided irrigation that is helpful to Columbia Basin farms that feed the world; have allowed for river transportation that carries raw and finished products to the rest of the globe while reducing truck traffic; and have provided industrial and household consumers with relatively cheap power.
In 2017, Clark Public Utilities purchased 63 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, meaning that hydroelectricity charges your smartphones and runs your microwave oven and powers your lamps. Bonneville Dam alone generates enough electricity to supply 900,000 homes, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Despite those clear benefits, some environmentalists continue to push for removal of the dams. Activists have advocated for the breaching of four dams along the Snake River; more recently, a pair of Native American tribes have called for the removal of three Columbia River dams — Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day.
The goal, they say, is to support salmon recovery and help dwindling populations of orcas that rely on salmon for food. Indeed, these are worthy goals, and decades of efforts to bolster salmon runs have met with middling success.
Representatives of the Yakama Nation, in calling for removal of the Columbia River dams, claim that the tribe never agreed to construction of the dams, as required by an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government. That might be a compelling argument; there is no shortage of examples in which the United States has ignored treaties over the past 150 years, and the government should be held accountable when necessary. The issue likely will be up to a court to decide.
Representatives of the Lummi Indian Reservation in Whatcom County, meanwhile, decry the decline of local orca pods. “Our people understand that the salmon, like the orca, are the miner’s canary for the health of the Salish Sea and for all its children,” tribal chairman Jeremiah Julius said.
Indeed, these are valid concerns. But in calling for dam removal, tribal leaders and activists thus far have neglected to provide reasonable alternatives for powering the region. Breaching dams would require the construction of additional power plants fueled by natural gas or coal or nuclear energy — each with their own environmental drawbacks. Wind energy and solar energy also must play a role in reshaping power production, but such a transformation requires time.
At a time when Washington is moving toward clean energy, with a new state law dictating the elimination of fossil fuels for electricity generation by 2045, hydropower will become even more essential for the state’s prosperity. In addition, federal studies in 2001 and 2010 have found that removal of dams along the Snake River would have a minimal impact on the orcas’ chances for survival.
Dams throughout the Northwest have been problematic and environmentally imperfect. They undoubtedly have played a role — along with other factors — in diminishing salmon runs. But removal would be a radical step that would devastate the economy of the entire region.
A balanced and incremental approach that includes the development of alternative energy is required to ensure the health of both people and fish throughout the Northwest.