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Oct. 1, 2022

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Schoesler: 4 Snake River dams too important to breach

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Opponents of the four Snake River dams between the Tri-Cities and the Washington-Idaho border argue that breaching them is necessary to improve salmon runs on the Snake and its tributaries.

Those of us who want to keep these dams in place also want salmon numbers to improve. But we believe removing these dams would do irreversible harm without guaranteeing a rebound in the salmon population.

Returning salmon numbers on the Columbia and Snake rivers this year have been incredibly high, despite the dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports this year’s sockeye return is the highest recorded at Bonneville Dam and second-highest at Lower Granite Dam since 1962. The spring and summer chinook run counts also were far above average at those dams.

The draft of the “Lower Snake River Dams Benefit Replacement Report,” requested by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee, values the dams’ benefits between $10 billion and $27 billion. But the true cost of replacing their benefits — such as power generation, irrigation, transportation and tourism — likely would be much higher.

According to a separate federal study, removing these four dams would destabilize the Northwest’s power grid, increase overall greenhouse-gas emissions, and more than double the risk of power outages in the region.

The clean energy from these dams equals about 11 percent of the total power produced in the Bonneville Power Administration’s entire system. The dams can boost power production during the darker, windless days of winter. When you remove subsidies for solar and wind, the dams still produce power at a lower cost. And the generating dollars coming from hydropower fund many fish and wildlife projects.

The power from these dams can’t be fully replaced by alternative energy sources, which matters because much greater demand for electricity is expected in the future.

Unlike wind and solar, dams produce reliable power when the air is calm and the sun isn’t shining. Until large-scale storage for wind and solar energy becomes reality, it would be foolish to remove the four dams and the consistent, clean power they generate.

The locks on the lower Snake dams allow barges to carry wheat downriver to ports in Vancouver, Portland and beyond, more economically and with far fewer carbon emissions than trucks or trains. They allow forest products, petroleum, fertilizer and oversized equipment to be shipped upriver.

If the dams were breached, barges could no longer reach Lewiston, Idaho, requiring more rail infrastructure, train cars and trucks to haul wheat to the Tri-Cities or other ports. This would increase shipping costs, pollution and damage to highways.

The four lower Snake dams provide dedicated fish passage. Breaching proponents should focus on dams located farther upriver in Idaho, which don’t. The same goes for pollution in marine waters, warmer ocean temperatures, and sea lions and other predators, all of which affect salmon numbers.

Dams also help with flood control, which the Portland-Vancouver area should consider since parts of it nearly reached flood stage late this spring.

The four dams’ fate will be decided by the federal government, which owns them. It would be an outrageous and colossal mistake if the feds spent tens of billions of our tax dollars on breaching these dams and replacing their benefits, which would greatly affect an entire region, only to see zero or only modest improvement in salmon runs in the Columbia-Snake River watershed.


Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, represents Washington’s 9th Legislative District.

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