Fight Over Snake River Dams Continues

Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River. A recent federal court ruling denied a request to halt work on upgrades to the dam. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers.

Although prospects are bleak for a proposed Senate resolution calling on the federal government to protect the Lower Snake River Dams, the outlook for the dams themselves is far from grim. After clearing the state Senate in a 26-23 vote on February 28, SJM 8004 managed to land a public hearing in the House Committee on Technology & Economic Development March 21. It has not been scheduled for executive action. However, recent court ruling on the Columbia and Snake River dams denying requests to halt fish passage upgrades may be seen as a setback for efforts to dismantle them. The ruling coincided with a recent debate weighing the costs and benefits to the dams.

The Senate resolution calls on President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Congress, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers to “take any and all action within your authority to prevent the breaching of any dam in the Columbia River system.”

Optimism Despite “Zero To None” Chance For Resolution

Primary sponsor State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) told Lens that although his bill’s chances now are “zero to none…I’m encouraged that the new (Trump) administration will look at this in a different light.”

Further encouragement might be found in a March 28 ruling by Judge U.S. Judge Michael Simon. Last September, Simon ordered the three federal agencies overseeing the Snake River dams consider breaching them as part of a salmon recovery plan.

However, in his March 28 ruling, Simon denied a request by the state of Oregon, Earthjustice, and the Nez Perce Tribe to order extra water spillage over the dams this month, rather than in 2018 as Simon had previously ruled. The extra spillage is intended to help younger salmon survive the journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Judge Ruling Allows Upgrades To Continue

Simon also denied their request to stop work on a $37 million upgrade project at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River, along with any future projects on the river. The move was criticized by advocates for preserving the dams during a debate that same day at Washington State University in Pullman. Arguing in favor of breaching the dams were Idaho Rivers United Executive Director Kevin Lewis and Save Our Wild Salmon Inland Northwest Director Sam Mace. Defending the dams were former U.S. Congressman Doc Hastings and Todd Myers, environmental policy director for the Washington Policy Center.

Myers argued that opposition to fish passage improvements represents “an either ‘all of nothing’ strategy; either tear them down, or nothing.”

“If we care about salmon…it doesn’t make any sense,” he added.

The irony was also noted in a recent Tri-City Herald editorial. “It is puzzling that anyone who cares about improving salmon runs would oppose dam projects that might help more fish survive. But that is what this looks like.”

Economic Benefits of Dams Debated

Proponents for preserving the dams have underscored the electricity generated by the dams, the water provided to agriculture, and the transportation made available via river barges. They’ve also emphasized the $2.6 billion Bonneville Power Administration estimates it would cost to remove them.

However, at the March 28 debate, Mace said it’s time to have an “honest assessment of the true cost and benefits of these dams.” She questioned the significance of the electricity generated and highlighted the tax dollars spent on the dams to improve salmon survival rates.

“I think we should ask ‘How do we support fishermen and farmers?” she added. “How do we provide affordable and efficient power and transportation while restoring one of the Northwest’s most iconic and beloved species. How do we accomplish these goals while responsibly spending taxpayers’ dollars?”

Salmon Runs Improving

Despite concerns over salmon returns, recent federal studies show that salmon survival rates for many species are at their highest in years, which some attribute to the millions of dollars’ worth of fish passage upgrades to the dams. Recent state official testimony has also indicated natural predators can contribute to low salmon populations.

“We are actually barging fish downstream,” Myers said. “Bit by bit, we’re getting there. We’re learning more. And we’re doing a better job at making sure that the salmon runs are higher.”

“What that not only means that the salmon runs and populations are increasing, but that also means that the net gain of tearing down the dams is shrinking,” he added. “And when that net gain shrinks down to a certain point, you have to weigh in what the losses are.”

The salmon population would also be higher if harvesting was curtailed appropriately, said Sheldon. “When you’re still gill-netting on the Columbia River, isn’t that an issue? What (other) endangered species can you catch and eat? It’s amazing how many fish are still being taken.”

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