Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Bold proposal to breach Snake River dams

Idaho congressman’s plan has support from across the aisle

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A bold proposal to remove four dams on the lower Snake River to aid in salmon recovery has been set forth by an Idaho congressman.

The proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, would include more than $33 billion to remove the dams, replace infrastructure for shipping and the electrical grid, and include monies for communities served by the dams. He has been joined in this effort by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon.

The proposal addresses a long-standing controversy over the four hydroelectric dams, which have been blamed for driving many runs of endangered salmon and steelhead stocks to near extinction. The federal dams have been a source of continuous legal battles over the past three decades.

Simpson’s proposal is expensive, but he points to the billions already spent to recover fish runs that continue to decline.

The arguments have pitted anglers and commercial fishing interests, as well as the industries that support them, against the interests of farmers, power companies, and transportation companies that rely on the dams. It has also pitted lower Columbia communities that rely on fisheries dollars against upper basin communities that depend on the dams economically.

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 basics of Simpson’s proposal include:

  • Invest nearly $5 billion in new transportation infrastructure to transport inland products like grain to market.
  • Invest over $14 billion in new energy infrastructure; including $2 billion for Northwest grid resiliency/optimization, $1.25 billion for energy storage, and $10 billion in replacement energy for the lower Snake River dams.
  • Provide Snake/Columbia River communities with over $1.5 billion for economic development.
  • Place fish restoration under the direction of tribes and states.
  • Invest in restoring the lower Snake River by breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
  • Invest in restoring non-ESA listed fish above blocked areas.
  • Allocate over $5 billion in other salmon conservation actions throughout the Basin; and provide legal certainty on Columbia River dams for 35 years.

In an online virtual discussion held on May 4, Simpson said his proposal could end the ongoing legal battles over the dams.

“I’d like to quit spending all this money in court, and try to end the salmon wars that go on and on and on,” Simpson said.

He is quick to point out that this effort is not about removing the Columbia River dams.

“That’s not our goal here,” he said. “This is to provide some certainty and security for the remaining Columbia River dams.”

Opponents of the proposal include Kurt Miller, the executive director of the Northwest River Partners, a coalition of hydropower advocates. Miller said removing the dams would leave the Northwest power grid vulnerable.

“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/

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