The Snake River dams have been in the news again. At an event hosted by Boise State University to examine efforts to balance hydropower, salmon, farming and the environment, the topic of dam breaching became the focus of the event. Some speakers called for forums to be created to look at the impacts of potential dam breaching. Others wanted to just remove the dams immediately without additional discussion or study.
Federal agencies are already studying the river system — including dam breaching — and will have a draft report for the region to review in February. This far-reaching effort is called the Columbia River System Operations (CRSO) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) study (www.crso.info).
That sure is a mouthful, but what it means is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and Bureau of Reclamation are jointly evaluating 14 dams in the Basin. They are looking at how the operations of those dams impact fish and other species. This four-year study is based in science, complies with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and includes opportunities for citizen review. It also includes significant collaboration with cooperating agencies, including all four Northwest states as well as 13 Northwest Tribes.
Calls for additional side processes and forums that undermine the existing study are counterproductive, not based in science, and divert resources from the creation of a credible plan that is best for salmon and the Northwest.
Some are arguing that that the potential impacts of dam breaching must be studied right now, lest they be caught unprepared for what is on the horizon. That very question is already being evaluated in the CRSO EIS — the federal agencies are required to capture potential economic impacts that could result from different ways of operating the dams, including breaching.
It is also important to remember that dam breaching or any other significant change to our federal infrastructure would have to be authorized and also funded by Congress. Congress has never gone down that path, and for good reason. No agency study has ever recommended dam breaching as the best way to recover Northwest fish runs. And those dams provide important benefits to the Northwest.
Each Snake River dam has a navigation lock that allows inland farmers access to international markets. The Snake River has had remarkably stable tonnage levels in the past 10 years. From just April to December in 2017 alone, over 3.5 million tons of cargo were barged on the Snake River. It would have taken over 35,140 rail cars to carry this cargo, or over 135,000 semi-trucks.
The Snake River is particularly important to our Northwest wheat farmers. Each year, the Snake River dams make it possible for nearly 10% of all U.S. wheat exports to move in the most fuel-efficient, safest, lowest emission type of cargo transportation — barging. Our farmers and other shippers will tell you that they need reliable river, rail and road connections to efficiently move our Northwest products. Taking away a major mode of cargo transport makes no sense.
Hydropower is a renewable domestic power source that produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Dams in the Northwest generate nearly 60% of our region’s electricity. The Snake River dams are key contributors to the Pacific Northwest energy profile, and as a firm power source, they make it possible for intermittent renewables like wind and solar to integrate into our system. Plus, the lower Snake River dams are some of the most reliable and lowest-cost electricity sources of the 31 federal dams from which BPA markets power.
Salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest is a collaborative effort by federal and state agencies, tribes, utilities and countless other entities. Together we all work to address the many ways a salmon’s life cycle can be affected by humans: hydropower, hatcheries, habitat, and harvest. Ocean conditions also play a major role in salmon health, in addition to significant impact from predators like birds, sea lions and other fish. Major improvements have been made in fish ladders, dam design, optimized river flow and habitat restoration, resulting in steady improvements to salmon runs. Juvenile fish survival rates past each of the eight federal dams are now between 95% and 98%.
As conversations continue in the region and the federal study process moves forward, PNWA’s members will continue to support clean renewable hydropower, efficient barge transportation, and science-based salmon recovery.