Congress may decide fate of the lower Snake River dams

Congress may decide fate of the lower Snake River dams
A House resolution sponsored by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5) and two other Washington lawmakers protecting the four lower Snake River dams from breaching has cleared the chamber. Photo: he National Wildlife Federation Blog

A U.S. House resolution backed by three Washington Republican lawmakers protecting the lower Snake River dams from breaching to improve endangered salmon species populations has cleared the chamber and headed to the Senate. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is currently overseeing water spillage over those dams per a federal court order to improve the survival rates of infant salmon, a move that some say could harm adult salmon moving upstream.

Passed on April 25 with a 225-189 vote, House Resolution 3144 would protect the four dams from breaching until 2022. Its primary sponsor is Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5), with Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-4) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-3) among the eight cosponsors.

In a joint statement, McMorris Rodgers said, “Dams and fish can coexist, and after more than two decades in the courtroom, let’s let scientists, not judges, manage our river system and get to work to further improve fish recovery efforts.”

The Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams are overseen by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), USACE and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Altogether, the four dams provide 7.1 percent of the total electricity produced in Washington state. Debate over the fate of the dams ramped up in 2016 after U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon ruled that a new environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Columbia River System Operations “may well require” breaching the dams in order to adequately protect the 13 species of Columbia or Snake River salmon that are either endangered or threatened.

The resolution would also reverse a federal court order to spill more water over those dams. Speaking on April 25 to colleagues on the House floor, Newhouse said this not only “creates risk of adverse consequences for other aquatic species,” but “the judge’s decision to recklessly dictate a water management plan could in fact harm or even kill these ESA (Endangered Species Act) listed salmon.”

Assisting the three federal agencies overseeing the dams in their efforts to improve salmon survival rates is the Westcoast Fisheries National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA Public Affairs Officer Michael Milstein told Lens that the water spillage level is the maximum amount allowed by the state’s water quality standards, also known as a “gas cap.”

However, it’s higher than what NOAA recommended, because the spillage can make it harder for adult salmon to move upstream.

“It’s a balancing act in term of how much spill is the right amount…and that may vary from dam to dam,” Milstein said.

Governor Jay Inslee’s 2016 State of Salmon Report advocated improved fish passages for the dams, but did not recommend breaching.

The debate over the dams could be seen as two-tiered; one involves the practicality of demolishing the dams, while the other concerns the survival rates of juvenile and adult salmon that pass through them.

Proponents of breaching the dams include the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Northwest Energy Coalition. In a recent blog post, NRDC argued that “we can replace the four lower Snake River dams’ power with clean resources that provide superior system reliability. If we consider the substantial long-term cost of maintaining the aging dams (estimated in a 2015 study at $269 million/year), it could very well be cheaper to retire the dams than to keep them.”

Their case relies on a NW Energy Coalition study, though study has been criticized by Todd Myers, environmental director for the Washington Policy Center. In an April post Myers wrote that in the best-case scenario, in which wind and solar energy compensates for the loss of electricity, “it would increase CO2 emissions by 326,928 metric tons (360,275 short tons) annually. This is the equivalent of adding 70,000 cars to the road. Destroying the dams would actually take us backward on carbon emissions.”

BPA has previously estimated it would cost $2.6 billion to remove all four dams. Agricultural industry members have also highlighted the 350,000 acres of private sector agricultural lands that would be affected if the dams were breached. That land generates an estimated $1.3 billion in direct and indirect annual household income.

The other controversy involves the impact of the dams on salmon survival. USACE spent $1.8 billion on fish passage improvements for the dams between 2001 and 2013. Yet, Simon and others believe those projects have failed to improve salmon survival rates.

The rates themselves require a bit of nuance. A new NOAA study published in February found the survival rates for juvenile Chinook salmon and steelhead at most of the dams are either at or close to the 96 percent survival rate recommended by NOAA.

Also, in 2016 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.

However, that figure only looks at salmon survival rate through one dam; not included is the overall survival rate of salmon passing through the entire system, a figure tracked by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and one that can be much lower than that of individual dams.

Milstein says they have no recommended overall survival rate because it’s not as helpful in determining which dams need additional fish passage improvements. “Each dam is somewhat different in terms of its design and dynamics, and each one sort of has to have a plan tailored to it to address the survival issues for both the fish going downstream and the adult that come upstream.”

H.R.3144 has yet to be referred to a Senate committee.

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