Lower Snake River Dams At Storm's Eye

Lower Snake River Dams At Storm’s Eye

Three federal agencies are preparing a new environmental impact statement (EIS) intended to protect threatened salmon and steelhead, and it could result in a recommendation to breach, or decommission, the four lower Snake River dams in Washington state. One in particular, the Ice Harbor Dam east of Kennewick, is considered crucial for agricultural irrigation. All four are key to cargo transport which supports rural jobs.

The challenge to the continued operation of the dams results from a lawsuit by a Seattle-based environmental group and an Oregon tribe, and is being advanced by a federal judge appointed by outgoing President Barack Obama. Although they contend the dams are harming fish, U.S. government data strongly suggest the opposite.

Harm To Growers, Markets, Energy Mix

Agriculture industry leaders warn breaching the dams would remove reliable water supplies and river transportation to help grow and transport crops that feed the state, nation and world, and would further harm rural communities by closing the Port of Lewiston situated along the Washington-Oregon border. Breaching the dams would also remove some clean hydroelectric power from the regional energy mix.

The EIS process was jump-started by a U.S. court ruling in May. It demanded a new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis under the 2014 biological opinion that governs the 14 Columbia River basin dams.

McMorris Rogers Defends Lower Snake Dams

Federal politics figures in, as a court of last resort, and it may favor dam backers. Under consideration for Secretary of Interior by President-elect Donald Trump is Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5), an outspoken defender of the lower Snake River dams. In a recent press release she stated, “I am proud to be a champion of our dams and the role they play in energy production, transportation, and trade.”

The lower Snake River dams are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite. They’re overseen by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Army Corps of Engineers, and federal Bureau of Reclamation.

U.S. Judge Keen On Possible Dam Removal

In his 149-page ruling in May, Judge Michael H. Simon, a 2010 appointee of President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court for Oregon, insisted the new EIS due by March 2018 “may well require” breaching these four dams, located in southeastern Washington. However, Congressional approval would be needed to implement any such move, according to agriculture sources.

The ruling results from a lawsuit filed by Seattle-based environmental group Earthjustice, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the state of Oregon against the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Simon argued the current Columbia Basin biological opinion insufficiently protects the 13 species of Columbia or Snake River salmon that are either endangered or threatened. Although he concluded there was “very little actual improvement in fish abundance,” a 2015 NOAA Snake River Fall Chinook Salmon Recovery Plan disagreed. It found that “many more fall Chinook salmon now return to the Snake River than in the 1990s.”

Impressive Salmon Survival Rates

September 2016 NOAA findings further underscored the point. A NOAA preliminary survival estimate found that juvenile Chinook salmon from the seven Snake River Basin hatcheries survived from release to the Lower Granite Dam at a 71.7 percent rate, the highest in 24 years.

BPA anticipates lower Snake River dams this year will achieve a 96 percent average dam survival rate for young spring Chinook and Steelhead headed downstream, and 93 percent survival rate for young summer-migrating fish.

The Army Corps of Engineers spent $1.8 billion on fish passage improvements for the dams between 2001 and 2013.

Crop, Vineyard And Orchard Land Health At Stake

The latest court ruling “did an excellent job of totally ignoring all the improvements” to fish passages and in survival rates, said Darryll Olsen, Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association board representative, and a resource economist. The association represents Eastern Washington farming operations that irrigate about 250,000 acres of prime row crop, vineyard, and orchard lands.

Olsen estimates that breaching the dams would affect 350,000 acres of private sector agricultural lands generating an estimated $1.3 billion in direct and indirect annual household income.

“What would effectively happen is a major reduction in acreage” that could be used for growing, he said. “You’re now running natural (water) flow, which is highly unstable. I don’t know what acreage would remain.”

The loss would not only be felt by agriculture reliant on irrigation the dams provide, said Olsen. Other industries such as food processing and shipping would suffer. The breaching of the lower Snake River dams would effectively render inoperable the Port of Lewiston, located along the Washington-Oregon border near Clarkston.

Rural Economy Would Be Decimated

“The economy of that rural area would be decimated” if that were to happen, said Tom Davis. He is director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau, which represents 10,000 farm industry members.

Davis told Lens wheat farmers use the port to transport their goods toward marketplaces worldwide on river barges because it is cheaper than trucking or railroad.

Then there’s the actual cost of breaching the dams. A 2016 BPA fact sheet concluded it would cost $2.6 billion. That does not include the additional estimated $200 million annually in new energy costs, according to Todd Myers. He is director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center.

Myers told Lens that eliminating the carbon-free hydroelectric energy provided by the dams “would have an enormous cost for ratepayers and for taxpayers.”

If breached, BPA says the energy produced by the dams would most likely be replaced by natural gas and increase the region’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2 to 2.6 million metric tons annually. That would completely neutralize carbon emission reduction expected from the closure of the Centralia coal plant scheduled for 2025, according to Forbes.

Coming soon are two more public meetings on scoping the EIS, or defining its parameters based the role of the lower Snake and other dams in the Columbia system, their effect on commerce and the environment, and related metrics. They will be held in Seattle December 1, and Astoria, Oregon, December 8. Emailed scoping comments are due by January 17, to [email protected].

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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