Guest Commentary: Removing lower Snake River dams would be unwise
~May 23rd, 2019
There are dams that should come down and those that shouldn’t.
Hopefully, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts its review of the 14 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, that will become abundantly clear. That review is expected to be ready for public comment in late 2020.
Here is the difference.
Demolishing the two dams on the Elwha River west of Port Angeles was a good thing. They were built in the early 1900s to bring electricity to the Olympic Peninsula at a time when salmon and steelhead were plentiful in other Pacific Northwest rivers. Neither dam had fish ladders.
On the Elwha, the issue was clear: Removing the dams allowed salmon and steelhead to move upstream to spawn. Neither could provide flood protection, irrigate farmlands, or were navigable.
But breaching the four Lower Snake River dams is entirely different.
For one thing, the billions of dollars paid by Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers to improve fish passage and spawning habitat throughout the Columbia-Snake river system is now paying off.
Of the 13 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act, only four migrate through the lower Snake River dams.
As for dams, Northwest River Partners reports survival through the Snake River dams for young salmon averages 97%. It is even better for juvenile steelhead at 99.5%.
Salmon maturing in the ocean must dodge the engulfing nets from fleets of giant trawlers, many of which are foreign. The small percentage of mature salmon that returns to the Columbia and Snake also must run the gauntlet of seals, sea lions, nets, and fishing lines.
While the Elwha dams produced little electricity, the four Snake River dams can provide enough electricity for 1.87 million homes when generating at full capacity. On average, they contribute 5% of the Northwest’s electricity supply.
A 2015 BPA reliability analysis concluded that replacement of the lower Snake Dams with natural gas generation would increase the region’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million to 2.6 million metric tons annually.
The network of dams is the marine highway created on the Columbia and Snake rivers. It is the most environmentally friendly way to move cargo from Lewiston to Astoria. A tug pushing a barge can haul a ton of wheat 576 miles on a single gallon of fuel. For comparison, if the dams were breached in 2017, it would have taken 35,140 rail cars or 135,000 semi-trucks to move the cargo that was barged on the Snake River that year.
Ten percent of all Northwest exports pass through the four lower Snake River dams. They generate $20 billion in trade, commerce, and recreation income. Water from their reservoirs nourishes thousands of farms, orchards, and vineyards.
“In the end, when the latest study and public hearings are done, the conclusion should be the same as the previous efforts: The Lower Snake River dams must remain,” Walla Walla’s Union Bulletin concluded in a 2016 editorial.
While Gov. Inslee got his appropriation of $750,000 for stakeholder input on Snake River dam removal, our money should be directed on how to improve, not remove, those dams.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, columnist, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.