Stakeholders need to begin talking about the possible impacts to Northwest communities if four dams on the Snake River are removed, says the leader of a group that advocates their removal.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t make a transition to a free-flowing lower Snake River and do so in a way that leaves agricultural communities either whole or with additional opportunities,” Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, based in Seattle, told the Capital Press.
Environmental groups have for years called for the removal of the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, citing their impacts on federally protected salmon and, more recently, orcas.
Bogaard said the conservation and fishing communities are committed to finding ways to help ensure greater certainty for all involved, including fishing and farming communities.
“I don’t think it’s something we do overnight, I don’t think it takes 10 years,” he said. “I think we can, with a plan and political leadership and support and buy-in of key stakeholders, this is something that can be done in three to five years.”
Bogaard pointed to “a lot of evidence, analyses and studies that have looked at the science and economics” around the dams, arguing that they are “high-cost and low-value dams with services that, while they’re important and there’s communities that rely on them, they are replaceable.”
“There’s quite a bit of evidence that suggests that some of the services, maybe all of the services currently provided by the dams, can be feasibly and affordably replaced, if we work together (and) put together the kinds of plans that involve timelines, dollars and programming to ensure the communities that currently rely on those dams or reservoirs can transition to alternative means of delivery, say irrigation water or moving transportation on land rather than on the river, or electricity,” he said.
Advocates for maintaining the dams argue that taking them out would not benefit salmon or orcas to the degree that environmentalists say, and would negatively affect trade. Barges use the Snake and Columbia rivers and pass through the locks at the dams to take grain to market downstream and supplies to farms upstream.
Pacific Northwest Waterways Association executive director Kristin Meira recently called environmentalists’ arguments simplistic, saying they are touting the idea that one action in one area would lead to species recovery.
“It is hard, depending on the setting, venue and time allowed, to talk in detail about the kinds of changes and details of what would be involved,” Bogaard said. “At the end of the day, the way many salmon, fishing and orca advocates see things: The salmon restoration activities, the program over the last several decades, clearly have fallen short.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are preparing an environmental impact statement for the Columbia River system, including the effects of removing the dams. A draft environmental impact statement is slated for release in February.
If the EIS finds no reason to remove the dams, would Bogaard and his organization accept it?
“Based on everything I understand of the science, I would be surprised,” he said. “I think the science shows clearly that restoring the lower Snake River is necessary to protect Snake River salmon and steelhead populations from extinction.”
Salmon recovery is the organization’s top priority, Bogaard said. He said the science “so clearly reflects” that restoring the lower Snake River is the necessary path to protect the fish from extinction and recover their numbers.
“The goal is the restoration of self-sustaining, abundant, harvestable populations of salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin and Snake River Basin,” he said.
What about low-cost options to removing the dams? A salmon “cannon” has been successfully used to get spawning salmon past dams and costs a fraction of the cost of taking out dams.
Bogaard says $17 billion has already been spent in the last 25 years without recovering a single population.
“I’m going to argue, we’ve tried,” he said.
But some salmon and steelhead stocks are getting close to recovery, said Michael Milstein, public information officer for NOAA Fisheries.
Many more Snake River fall Chinook salmon are returning to spawn each year than when they were listed as endangered species in the 1990s.
“Also, we have not lost any populations,” Milstein said. “This is true even though predator numbers in the ocean and rivers are consuming millions more salmon than they did decades ago. That is a lot of fish that do not make it back to the spawning grounds.”
For example, sea lions line up along parts of the Columbia and Willamette rivers and eat salmon as they pass by.
The dams do impact fish, Milstein said. “But lots of work has been done to reduce those impacts and get the fish through the dams safer and faster.”
Bogaard said the organization is open to discussions if there’s a way to help the salmon without taking out the dams.
“If there are scientifically credible stones that are left unturned, ...” he said. “It’s got to be guided by law and science and with a commitment to fishing and farming communities in finding a way forward that works for everybody.”