Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Inslee, Murray target wrong Snake River dams for removal

Prioritizing spawning habitat …

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Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray have their priorities backward when it comes to rebuilding Snake River salmon and steelhead runs. Instead of focusing on ripping out dams with fish passages and navigation locks, they should find ways to reopen traditional spawning areas upriver, which are blocked by dams without fish ladders.

Breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams is costly and counterproductive. Over the last 30 years, northwest electric ratepayers paid $7.6 billion to the Bonneville Power Administration for fish and wildlife protection. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is installing expensive new state-of-the-art, fish-friendlier generators in the Ice Harbor powerhouse. All are designed to rebuild fish runs.

Blocking the migrating salmon route to southern Idaho rivers and streams are the three Snake River dams in Hells Canyon. When Idaho Power Co. completed the Brownlee Dam in 1959—the closest upstream from Lower Granite—it blocked salmon and steelhead from reaching historic spawning areas as far away as Twin Falls.

Over the years, several attempts failed to reintroduce fish runs above the Hells Canyon impoundments, but now is not time to give up trying. The priority should be to extending spawning grounds not breaching dams.

Restoring Snake River runs is not just a lower Snake River dams’ problem. Nor is demolishing Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon, Oxbow, and Brownlee dams an alternative to breaching the lower dams in Washington. All options, ranging from trucking and barging fish around dams to reducing overfishing and predation, should be on the table.

“The decline of the Columbia River salmon runs, including the Snake River runs, was started by overharvest in the lower Columbia from the 1860s to the early 1900s and in the lower Columbia and Pacific Ocean from the early 1900s to the 1970s,” John McKern, a fish and wildlife biologist, wrote in 2015. Overharvest and loss of spawning habitat due to upstream dams and human activities occurred before the lower Snake River dams were built.

In all, there are 22 hydropower dams on the Snake River’s main stem—15 in Idaho, three on the Idaho and Oregon border, and four in Washington. The Snake River produces more than 1,100 megawatts of electricity—enough for the city of Seattle—and water withdrawals irrigate 3.8 million acres.

All those dams, not just the four on lower Snake River in Washington, impact fish runs.

Congressman Dan Newhouse, a central Washington farmer, was blunt in his recent testimony: “They need to acknowledge the millions of tons of carbon these dams prevent from entering our atmosphere. They need to acknowledge our dams utilize world-class technology and engineering to support the most efficient production of carbon-free hydroelectricity while also improving fish passage to rates between 93% and 96%.”

The Inslee-Murray joint statement issued last October reads like breaching the lower Snake River dams is a foregone conclusion. While they say they’ll listen to diverse viewpoints with open minds, they seem fixed on “post breaching” strategies.

Inslee and Murray need to take the blinders off and look more widely at the path ahead. Just speeding down a narrow road where dam removal is the only option is not good for our state or region.

Wouldn’t it be wise, to focus on the impacts of the Hells Canyon dams on the loss of salmon and steelhead habitat before arbitrarily deciding to just tear out the lower Snake River dams?


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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