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Murray-Inslee Snake River report says breaching dams would cost $10 billion to $27 billion

UPDATED: Thu., June 9, 2022

Breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River to prevent the extinction of native salmon, and replacing the benefits the dams provide such as hydropower and barging, could cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion, according to a draft report released Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray.

In anticipation of the report, a coalition of Republican members of Congress introduced legislation that would protect the dams, arguing that they provide irreplaceable energy, irrigation and transportation benefits to the region.

Both announcements are the latest developments in the duel surrounding the Snake River dams and salmon. Tribal leaders and environmental activists have advocated dam breaching for years to save dwindling populations of chinook salmon, steelhead and lamprey from extinction, as well as a way of life for the Nez Perce Tribe. Those efforts had a big win in 2021, when Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson released a $33 billion plan to breach the four dams on the lower Snake River.

The Nez Perce Tribe have been vocal supporters of Simpson’s plan and are joined in their support by the Columbia Basin Tribes, Northwest Tribes and other tribes across the nation. Simpson’s plan for the Snake River includes significant investment in fish and wildlife funding, and emphasizes the need for both tribal and state fish and wildlife managers to oversee recovery efforts.

In a news release, The Nez Perce Tribe called on leadership in the Biden administration and Congress to act quickly in order to restore the lower Snake River and prevent salmon extinction, following the publication of the Murray-Inslee report.

“Salmon – the icon of the Pacific Northwest – are facing an extinction crisis, and need a restored lower Snake River,” Chairman Samuel Penney stated in the news release. “The subsidized services provided by the four dams that have turned the Snake into a lake can be replaced and addressed, and in doing so, we will be charting a smarter, better future for the Northwest and the Nation.”

On the other side of the debate, advocates argue breaching the dams would negatively impact agriculture, tourism and Pacific Northwest residents who rely on the energy generated by the hydroelectric dams. Northwest RiverPartners, an advocacy group representing the interests of hydroelectric dams and utilities, released its own statement decrying the Murray-Inslee report moments after its release.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said the report does not give proper attention to the impact losing the hydroelectric dams would have on the 100% clean energy goals called for by the 2040s and passed into law in both Washington and Oregon.

“The most fundamental flaw of the draft report is the failure to recognize there is no practical way to replace the clean hydroelectric power generated by the dams on the lower Snake River and still meet our region’s carbon reduction timelines,” Miller said in the statement. “In the foreseeable future, without the dams we would have two choices, accept regular blackouts that would risk lives or burn fossil fuels as a replacement, and all at a higher cost for every consumer in the region.”

The draft report is a comprehensive look at the benefits currently provided by the dams, and the actions that have been considered to replace those benefits if the dams were breached, like the plan Simpson broached last year. It estimates that breaching the dams and mitigating the loss of energy, irrigation and transportation benefits would cost $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion.

The process of breaching the dams and the inevitable cleanup could cost between $1.2 billion to $2 billion, according to the Inslee-Murray report.

The release of the draft report Thursday morning marks the beginning of a monthlong public comment period that will end July 11. Inslee and Murray have said they are keeping an open mind, and that the final report will be used to inform the recommendations on whether the dams should be breached or retained.

Breaching the dams would eliminate all commodity barging between the Tri-Cities and the Lewiston- Clarkston area, according to the report. Farmers around the Palouse rely on barges to move their wheat, and breaching the dams would mean a heavy reliance on railroads and trucking instead. The report states that significant improvements to rail lines and roadways would be needed, and compensation for increased transportation costs, infrastructure maintenance and loss of jobs would need to be considered. Those improvements could cost between $542 million and $4.8 billion.

Breaching the dams also would impact the water supply for farmers who rely on reservoirs and elevated groundwater levels to irrigate their crops. In 2021, the combined production value of irrigated land along the Snake River was estimated to be nearly $338 million. The report states that a variety of replacement actions are possible, including drilling deeper wells, for an estimated cost of $188 million to $1 billion.

The dams on the Snake River are part of a broader hydroelectric system along the Columbia River that provide power to residents in Washington and Oregon. By examining several studies on potential energy replacements, the independent consultant in charge of the report determined the energy generated could be replaced by increased reliance on wind and solar energy.

However, those replacements would need to be in place prior to breaching the dams to avoid significant impacts to the regional energy system and the communities it serves. Offsetting the loss of energy could cost anywhere from $8.3 billion to $18.6 billion.

“Replacing the energy production … would take time, funding, planning and collaboration across all stakeholders to ensure that the region’s future clean energy goals are met, the region maintains a reliable system, and customers, especially the most vulnerable, are not overly burdened by increased electricity rates,” the report states.

Recreation on the Snake River also would be impacted. The dams support 2.6 million recreational visits annually, and the cruise industry along the Snake River had an economic impact of around $4 million in 2019, according to the report. Investment in new recreational amenities if the dams were breached and compensation for impacted industries would cost an estimated $425 million.

Given the potential magnitude of all of these costs, significant federal investment would be needed, according to the report.

But if Inslee and Murray decide to recommend the dams be breached, they may have missed their opportunity to secure federal funding. When Simpson introduced his plan around 18 months ago, he hoped to have it included in the $1.3 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year. He called on elected officials from around the Northwest to come to the table and reach an agreement, but received little more than a noncommittal joint statement from Sens. Murray and Maria Cantwell in Washington, and Oregon Sens.Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. All are Democrats.

The bill introduced Thursday by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., dubbed the “Federal Columbia River Power System Certainty Act,” is backed by Washington Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler, as well as Republican Reps. Cliff Bentz of Oregon and Russ Fulcher of Idaho. The bill also has support from a handful of Republican representatives outside of the Pacific Northwest, according to the news release.

“The science is crystal clear: breaching the Four Lower Snake River Dams would be harmful to our communities, our environment, and our economy,” Newhouse stated in the release. “Amidst a national energy and supply chain crisis, it is unconscionable that dam-breaching advocates – including Governor Inslee and Senator Murray – repeatedly attempt to force a predetermined, unscientific conclusion that will put our communities who are already struggling at risk.”

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