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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Kurt Miller: Anti-hydro narrative misses the big picture of climate change, equity and salmon

By Kurt Miller Northwest RiverPartners

I recently participated in a panel for the CleanTech Alliance on the future of the lower Snake River dams. The panelists had diverse viewpoints, which is a good thing. However, one statement by a co-panelist who advocates for breaching the Snake dams struck me as particularly important. She said, “It’s not like we’re talking about tearing down the whole [hydropower] system.” But is that true?

A speaker at a February panel co-sponsored by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, and the Endangered Species Coalition shared why his organization is focused on removing the lower Snake River dams. In large part, it’s because these dams are in the media spotlight. However, he said his organization’s ultimate goal is to remove all Columbia River Basin dams from the gravel of the headwaters all the way to the ocean.

My organization, Northwest RiverPartners, advocates for hydropower across the Northwest. Hydro, which was critical to electrifying the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s, is now even more important for the planet in the 2020s. It provides close to 90% of the region’s renewable energy and is a critical tool that helps us balance the ups and downs of wind and solar power production.

That said, we are on record as supporting the removal of the Klamath River dams, which lack fish passage capabilities and produce very little energy. We have worked with congressional staff to support funding for the removal of Enloe Dam, which also lacks fish passage and provides no electricity.

But the lower Snake River dams are unique. Contrary to the popular narrative, these dams are nowhere near the end of their useful lives. Since 2000, they’ve had roughly $500 million invested in upgrading their fish passage technologies, making them among the most advanced in the world. They provide enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle, and they enable irrigation and navigation.

For anyone who doubts the significant contributions these dams provide to our local communities, consider the $33.5 billion package that Rep. Mike Simpson has proposed to mitigate their potential loss.

Candidly, the most alarming part of the major political/media push by anti-dam groups is the lack of scientific evidence they provide. They point to two smaller Northwest tributaries – the Yakima and John Day rivers – as evidence that salmon that pass fewer dams on their downstream journey are doing great. But, they ignore the fact that fall chinook from the Yakima and John Day actually return in lower percentages than those originating from the Snake.

It’s well documented that chinook survival rates have seen near-synchronous declines across the West Coast of North America. This is the case all the way up to the free-flowing, pristine rivers of Southeast Alaska. In scientific terms, that means that there is at least one other highly plausible explanation of the driver behind salmon declines – and we haven’t even talked about exploding California sea lion populations yet.

Furthermore, it is universally accepted by salmon scientists that climate change and the warming ocean is bad for salmon. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Science in 2019 spoke of the unabated warming of the ocean since the 1970s, which has led to the decline of marine fish populations around the globe. Coincidentally, this is the same timing for the construction of the last of the lower Snake River dams, which could easily lead people to blame the dams for salmon woes.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine urged Congress to preserve operating nuclear and hydropower facilities as part of the nation’s decarbonization efforts. NASEM said that it is technically possible to achieve a carbon-free grid, but the costs of doing so risk leaving vulnerable communities behind. Maintaining our hydropower and nuclear fleet of resources will make a huge difference in both the reliability and the affordability of the electric grid.

With the prevalence of anti-hydro narratives, we risk a lot more than just losing the lower Snake River dams. We risk losing our region’s edge in the fight against climate change and our ability to achieve decarbonization goals in a fair and equitable manner.

Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization representing community-owned utilities across the Pacific Northwest. The organization also represents farmers, ports and businesses that support clean energy and low-carbon transportation.

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