Built from 1962 through 1975, the dams that would be removed are the Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and the Lower Granite Dam.
The Snake River used to boast robust returns of fish. For instance, in 1962, wild “B” run index steelhead returning to the Snake River totaled almost 43,200 adults. By 2017 that run had shrank to 751 adults.
Conservationists allege that the dam’s turbines kill outgoing juvenile salmon and steelhead, and the reservoirs warm the water beyond what the fish can tolerate. The dams also allegedly delay downstream passage, among other issues.
Data presented by Columbia River Tribes to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on May 5 suggest that 44 percent of Snake River steelhead populations are predicted to be at or below 50 spawners by 2025. The data also suggests that 77 percent of Snake River summer/spring Chinook are in the same condition. Biologists for the tribes say this is a path for extinction.
Advocates for the dams point to carbon-neutral power production, low-cost transportation through barging, and irrigation for farmers as economic benefits of keeping the dams in place.
“The Northwest is facing the potential of rolling blackouts like we’ve seen in Texas and California,” Miller said. “We are retiring megawatts of coal-fueled power, and solar and wind are weather dependent. We are losing dispatchable resources, those that can be turned on and off, and replacing them with other less predictable sources.”
Simpson maintains that retrofitting existing dams with more efficient turbines, among other measures, could easily replace the power generated by the Snake River Dams.
“We could double the power coming out of the Northwest just with new and more efficient turbines,” Blumenauer said.
Miller rejects that argument outright.
“Highly efficient hydropower turbines don’t produce that much more electricity,” he said.
Liz Hamilton, the executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, a pro-fishing lobbying association, said there really is not as much question about the effects of dam removal as is being reported by dam breaching opponents.
“It’s not like pulling dams out is all that revolutionary,” said Hamilton. “We know what will happen if we pull them out.”
Many Northwest Dams have been removed, with positive results for fisheries.
The question of ocean conditions is another factor that Miller pointed to as far as holding back recovery. He believes that without good ocean conditions, the runs cannot recover, with dams or not. Proponents of dam breaching contend that ocean conditions are beyond the management of fisheries agencies, leaving freshwater conditions as the only factor the agencies can manage.
Miller would like to see more studies done to establish a stronger correlation between breaching and fish recovery. However, Hamilton believes the fish have run out of time.
“We’ve spent decades making minor improvements and adjustments that simply haven’t worked, and what we really need is serious funding and a major overhaul,” Hamilton said. “Judge Malcolm Marsh said this about salmon and the Columbia hydroelectric system in 1993 and it’s just as true today.”
Whether the proposal can gain momentum and eventually become legislation, and overcome the very strong resistance from its detractors, will be seen in the months ahead.
The full Simpson proposal can be found here: https://simpson.house.gov/salmon/