The benefits provided by four giant hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state can be replaced if the dams are breached to save endangered salmon runs, according to a new report released Thursday.
But that would be expensive.
Finding other ways to provide electricity, irrigation and enable commerce would cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion, according to the report commissioned by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and US Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The draft report makes no recommendation on whether the four dams should be breached. A decision on this controversial issue is expected later. Instead, the report allows the public, tribes, river users and other stakeholders to provide feedback over the next month that will inform this decision.
“We continue to approach the issue of the breach with an open mind and without a predetermined decision,” Inslee and Murray said in a press release.
“Every community in the Pacific Northwest knows the value and importance of our iconic salmon runs – and every community recognizes the importance of salmon to our economy and cultural heritage,” they said. “We all remain strongly committed to saving our salmon.”
Breaking the dams would dramatically improve the ability of salmon and rainbow trout to swim from their inland spawning grounds to the Pacific Ocean, where they spend most of their lives, and then return to their original spawning grounds to procreate and die, according to the report.
Major benefits of dams include making the Snake River navigable to Lewiston, Idaho, allowing barges to transport wheat and other crops to ocean ports. Removing the dams would require improvements in road and rail transport to move crops, the report said.
The dams also generate electricity, supply irrigation water to farmers and provide recreational opportunities for residents, according to the report.
The dams have many supporters, including two congressional GOP members representing eastern Washington state. The dams are also supported by barge companies, farmers, and other commercial interests. Violating them would require an act of Congress.
Republican U.S. Representatives Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of eastern Washington introduced legislation Thursday to protect dams, which are located in their districts. “Breaking the lower four dams of the Snake River would be detrimental to our communities, our environment and our economy,” Newhouse said.
“What’s alarming is trying to break them at a time when families in eastern Washington are paying record energy costs just to keep the lights on this summer,” McMorris Rodgers said.
But the president of the Yakama nation said the dams must be broken.
“Our people are salmon people,” Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin said. “When salmon thrive, we thrive; but when they suffer, our people also suffer.
While exploring the Columbia River Basin in 1805, Lewis and Clark described waterways so full of salmon you could almost cross them on your back.
In the late 1800s, up to 16 million salmon and rainbow trout returned to the Columbia River basin each year to spawn. Over the next century and a half, overfishing reduced that number. By the early 1950s, just under 130,000 Chinooks were returning to the Snake River.
Construction of the first dam on the lower river, Ice Harbor, began in 1955. Lower Monumental followed in 1969, Little Goose in 1970, and Lower Granite in 1975. The dams stretch from Pasco, Washington, to near Pullman, Washington, and stand between migrating salmon and 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) of spawning habitat in central Idaho.
Dams have fish ladders, but too many salmon die swimming through dams and through slack water reservoirs on their migrations.
In 1991, Snake River salmon and rainbow trout were listed as endangered, requiring the production of a federal recovery plan. Over the next three decades, environmental organizations sued the federal government six times, arguing that the stimulus package was inadequate.
The most recent lawsuit, in 2016, resulted in a four-year study of the environmental impact of dams. Although he found that breaking the dams would be the most effective salmon recovery action, federal agencies ultimately decided against it.
The US government has spent more than $17 billion trying to salvage the Snake River salmon, improving fish ladders and other measures, to little effect. In 2017, the number of Chinook salmon returning to the Snake River fell below 10,000.
The reduced salmon population is also a blow to the endangered southern resident killer whale population. Over 90% of the whales’ diet is salmon, which comes from a variety of places, including the Snake River system.
Proponents of the dam attribute the decline in salmon migrations to other factors, such as changing ocean conditions.
Last year, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, unveiled a competing $33.5 billion plan to bring back Snake River salmon. He got bogged down, failing to get support from other Republicans, Democrats and some environmental groups.
The centerpiece of Simpson’s plan is the breaking of all four dams, at a cost of up to $1.4 billion. The rest of the money would be used to replace renewable electricity generated by the dams, improve salmon habitat and help farmers who depend on the dams for irrigation and barge transportation of their crops.