After three decades of debate over whether the lower Snake River dams should be breached to help dwindling salmon populations, advocates and political leaders on both sides believe the conversation has hit a turning point.
The issue began heating up again nearly 18 months ago when Republican Rep. Mike Simpson introduced an ambitious $33 billion plan to breach the dams, while ensuring the benefits the dams provide would be accounted for. He seemed to have no support from fellow political leaders – until now.
On Thursday morning, dam-breaching efforts hit another milestone when Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both Democrats, released a draft report on the potential impacts of breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River, and the expected cost of replacing the benefits they provide such as hydropower and barging. The report posits the dams could be breached, and the benefits replaced, but with a price tag between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion.
The draft report makes no recommendations on whether the dams should be breached and is intended to be the defining study to educate Inslee and Murray on the issues at play before they make their official recommendations following a month-long public comment period. Congress would need to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to breach the dams.
Congressman Dan Newhouse, a Republican representing Central Washington, announced his own plan for the dams on Thursday morning in anticipation of the impending release of the Murray-Inslee report. Backed by several GOP members of the Western Congressional Caucus, including Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Newhouse introduced the Federal Columbia River Power System Certainty Act to protect the dams.
“I think, certainly, the efforts to compromise the dams, that seems to be as strong as it’s ever been,” Newhouse said. “By introducing legislation, that makes a strong statement that the dams are an important part of the state.”
The four dams at the heart of the debate are in the districts represented by Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers. Their proposal was endorsed by several agricultural groups, including the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. Executive Director Michelle Hennings said they have been concerned about the reliability of the Murray-Inslee Report since it began.
“After reading the draft report, we’re even more concerned that the process lacks the integrity, resources and time needed to provide the meaningful science-based analysis on the river system critical for Washington farmers,” Hennings said. “The report implies that the navigation and transportation benefits of the dam could simply be replaced by rail and trucking, and completely ignore the current challenges that our farmers face.”
Like many of those opposed to breaching the dams, Newhouse is skeptical it would directly benefit salmon runs on the Snake River. He said the dams provide important transportation benefits for farmers who rely on barges to carry their wheat from Lewiston to the port of Portland, and that the hydroelectricity they produce is vital to the region’s energy grid.
Newhouse said the Murray-Inslee report fails to fully consider the many other factors contributing to dwindling salmon numbers, including rising ocean temperatures due to climate change.
Kurt Miller, executive director of pro-dam advocacy group Northwest RiverPartners, echoed Newhouse’s concerns. He said the Murray-Inslee report does not fully consider the implications removing the hydroelectric dams would have on the local power grid, and efforts towards 100% carbon free energy passed into law in both Oregon and Washington.
The report states the energy lost if the dams were breached could be replaced by larger investments in wind and solar power. But Miller said that would require a solar, wind and storage operation at a scale never before seen on planet Earth. You can rely on a river to flow and balance the region’s energy grid at any given time, but you can not rely on the sun to shine or the wind to blow, he said.
“You will have to overbuild so much to make sure there is always enough wind or solar somewhere and they completely missed that,” Miller said. “This is supposed to be the report to educate Murray and Inslee and they won’t hear this important part of the issue. The context of this matters; it’s not happening in a vacuum.”
Miller said he is sympathetic to advocacy groups and tribal leaders concerned about the dwindling salmon runs. Like Newhouse, he believes the dams are not the biggest threat to salmon in the Snake River and is optimistic that there are still viable solutions to be found, other than breaching them.
The report states that breaching the dams would greatly benefit salmon populations in the Snake River, as well as the Indigenous tribes who have relied on them for thousands of years. Shannon Wheeler, vice-chairman of The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said the Murray-Inslee report is a positive step toward the U.S. government making good on the promises they made to the tribe over 100 years ago in the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.
“I really do think that moving forward, this is something that is positive, as it brings to light the issues at hand,” Wheeler said. “And from our perspective, the issue is, of course, the declining salmon numbers that fall far below the delisting and definitely far, far below the healthy, harvestable, abundant numbers, and definitely way, way below the historic numbers.”
When the dams were built, they flooded 14,400 acres, washing away ancient Indigenous gathering sites, burial grounds and towns. Salmon populations plummeted with the dams’ construction, which cut off 55% of the Columbia Basin’s fish habitat. The Murray-Inslee Report said that the dams have led to an estimated annual loss of 8.4 million to 14.3 million pounds of salmon for the tribe.
The Nez Perce Tribe released a statement moments after the Murray-Inslee report became public, calling for political leaders to take action now to save the salmon runs. Wheeler said the report proved Simpson’s plan, proposed 18 months ago, is still a good framework to follow. It shows the region can change with the times, as alternatives to the dams’ benefits do exist, he said.
“We have a short window here to actually do something that is going to make this Pacific Northwest that smarter, better, stronger place, and not only for the people of this land and for the species of this land, but in the world as well,” Wheeler said. “If we, as a nation, look to hold other countries responsible for their environmental issues, we must really look at our own environmental issues here and how we’re responding to the ones that we’ve created.”
Wheeler agrees with Newhouse that the conversation around the dams feels like it has reached a turning point. He hopes that if Murray and Inslee come out in support of breaching the dams, real steps toward doing so would finally begin.
Mitch Cutter, Salmon and Steelhead associate for the Idaho Conservation League, thinks Simpson’s original plan is still the best way forward for the Snake River dams. He said the Murray-Inslee Report proves that the services provided by the dams can be replaced.
“With energy, we have studies and analysis that say that all of the energy production of the Lower Snake River dams is replaceable with a portfolio of clean energy resources. So solar, winds, battery storage, energy efficiency, etc.,” Cutter said. “Essentially, if you don’t actually replace the Lower Snake River dams one for one, if you build more energy generation that works better in the summer, and in the winter, when the region actually needs it, you’re actually not just replacing the benefits of the dams but improving on them.”
The four dams produce on average 933 megawatts of power, according to a 2019 Bonneville Power Administration analysis. That’s enough to power around 750,000 typical homes in the northwest for an entire year.
Miller said losing that amount of power could jeopardize the stability of the region’s power grid and put Oregon and Washington at a significant disadvantage toward reaching their clean energy goals.
Cutter, on the other hand, sees it as an opportunity for the Pacific Northwest to be a leader in the clean energy movement, as well as a national leader in righting past wrongs.
“I think the report reiterates the perspective that we’ve had for a long time, before Congressman Simpson came out with his Columbia Basin Initiative proposal last year, but especially after he came out with it,” Cutter said. “The services can be replaced, and indeed, now we know that they must be replaced if we want to restore these species to real abundance and start to honor the obligations and the promises that we made to Native American tribes long ago.”
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