A federal study released Friday recommends against breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington, arguing doing so would cost too much money and have detrimental environmental effects.
The draft report, prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, was quickly criticized by conservation and tribal groups concerned about the continued loss of migratory fish and the four dams’ effects on cultural practices.
Over the next 45 days, its findings likely will continue to stoke debate about balancing competing interests in river recreation, fish survival, commodity shipping and power generation along a waterway that was dammed starting in the 1960s and has been the source of controversy for just as long.
“This (report) is not expected to end the regional debate on the future of the four lower Snake River dams,” the authors write at one point in a 36-page summary of its findings. “On the contrary, (it) provides information and analysis to inform that future dialogue.”
After spending several months consulting tribes, public utilities, local governments and state and federal agencies, the authors recommended releasing additional water at intervals over the top of all 14 of the structures on what is known as the Columbia River System, a span of waterways stretching from southern Canada to Oregon. That includes the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on a stretch of the Snake from just west of Pullman to its confluence with the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities.
The authors argued that releasing more water over the top of the dams, instead of breaching them, would prevent a boost in utility rates for customers of the BPA and other local utilities, which draw energy from the dams during periods of peak demand.
Removing the dams would put pressure on the grid, the authors argue, and efforts to replace energy through other means would cost money, resulting in higher rates for users, and potentially produce harmful greenhouse gasses.
But groups concerned about the travel of spawning salmon and other types of native fish said the report, hastened by a Trump administration memo signed in October 2018 and now slated for completion before the 2020 elections, did not adequately evaluate the damage to wildlife, including 13 species of fish that have become endangered since the dams’ construction. They also criticized the report’s conclusion as just a rehashing of previous strategies that haven’t worked.
“At this critical point, when what were the world’s most abundant salmon runs are nearing extinction, what we need are new solutions, not a repackaging of previous strategies that clearly haven’t, and won’t, deliver the recovery of salmon,” said Tom France, the National Wildlife Federation’s regional director for the Pacific Northwest, in a statement released Friday.
Eastern and Central Washington’s lawmakers have instead argued that much of the reason for the declining salmon population, which is a major food source for the orca whales whose populations are dwindling in the Pacific, are due to worsening ocean conditions once young salmon enter the saltwater, where they spend most of their lives.
On Thursday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who has been a vocal critic of efforts to remove the dams, urged the Environmental Protection Agency to review the release of sewage into the Puget Sound. That’s part of a system that is similar to Spokane’s, which releases untreated runoff into public waterways during heavy rains and snowmelt.
“Today, millions of gallons of pollution is being dumped into Puget Sound, by the city of Seattle and King County,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview at her U.S. Capitol office last month, when asked about the current court-ordered process to review the dams.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents the Tri-Cities and the area where the two rivers meet, echoed those comments in an interview, also last month.
“Whether you’re in Idaho, or you’re in Puget Sound, or you’re in Central Washington, people tend to look at just one piece of the puzzle, and not look at the whole system,” Newhouse said. “We have to look broadly, at everything.”
The dams also provide navigable waters for barges taking Washington-grown wheat to the West Coast for transport to international markets. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2.4 million short tons of wheat were barged on the waters of the Snake, by far the commodity most heavily transported on the river.
U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican whose district encompasses the port at Lewiston, also doesn’t support the breaching of the dams, arguing in an interview in January that those who supported breaching didn’t adequately consider the effects to recreation, irrigation and power generation. Fulcher also said he didn’t believe breaching would have enough support in Congress – significant, because it would take actions and appropriations by the legislative body as a whole to authorize removal.
But Fulcher noted that BPA is shouldering a large financial burden in building infrastructure on its dams to allow passage of fish, which makes it hard for the utility provider to offer competitive rates, he said at the time.
“Personally, I would not support dam-breaching as part of the answer to that,” Fulcher said. “But nevertheless, there is a problem, and we’re going to have to confront it sooner or later.”
Critics on Friday pointed out that the plan follows several others that have been rejected by the courts to address the conflict.
“Modest tweaks to dam operation will leave Columbia Basin salmon and the orcas that depend on them at serious risk of extinction,” said Giulia Good Stefani, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement issued Friday.
The federal agencies will accept written comment on the environmental statement through April 13. Comments can be submitted online. A public hearing is scheduled for March 25 in Spokane. It will be held from 4-8 p.m. at the DoubleTree City Center, next to the Spokane Convention Center, 322 N. Spokane Falls Court.
Additional public hearings will be held in Lewiston, Kennewick, Seattle, Portland and Kalispell, Montana, over the next several weeks. A final decision on the federal government’s plan with the dams is expected in September.
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