Blending science, policy on dams

Blending science, policy on dams
A Sept. 10 meeting of the U.S. Committee on Natural Resources in Central Washington aimed to boost national support for preserving four lower Snake River dams that critics say need to be dismantled to improve endangered salmon populations. Photo: Walter Siegmund

Proponents of breaching the four lower Snake River dams to aid the recovery of endangered salmon species know the move would ultimately require Congressional authorization and funding for that to happen. A Sept. 10 meeting of the U.S. Committee on Natural Resources in Central Washington prompted by U.S. lawmakers representing the state aimed to bolster support for preserving them.

Testimony at the meeting included industry and business representatives who touted the agricultural, transportation and environment benefits provided by the dams.

“I believe it’s important that congress Is educated about how vital our federal river power system is to the Pacific Northwest,” U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4) said. “It is my hope for this hearing today that a national audience will learn more about the myriad of benefits that our river system provides. These rivers truly are the economic lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest.”

Earlier this year a U.S. District judge ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to conduct additional water spillage over the four dams to improve salmon survival rates. The move is expected to cost ratepayers roughly $38 million annually. The ruling also overrode spillage levels recommended by NOAA and the spill levels outlined in the 2014 biological opinion governing Chinook salmon recovery.

The court order inspired U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA-5) to introduce a House resolution to protect those dams from breaching until 2022. The resolution passed in April on a 225-189 vote, and has now been referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

However, an ongoing federal court injunction requires that breaching the dams be considered under a new environmental impact statement (EIS) analysis for the 2014 biological opinion due in 2021.

Removing the dams could also be included as part of recommendations made by the state Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force created by Governor Jay Inslee. The task force had its most recent meeting Sept. 11.

Studies indicate that Snake River Chinook salmon make up a small portion of Chinook consumed by these killer whales.

Also, structural improvements to the dams have significantly improved juvenile fish survival rates in recent years, making them equal to survival rates in the 1960s when there were only four dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers.

Referencing the recent death of an infant killer whale, McMorris Rodgers said at the Sept. 10 meeting that “the four lower Snake River dams didn’t cause the whale to die. Let’s focus on what is actually going to get results.”

One way advocated by some is to increase salmon hatchery production, which has increased in recent years while wild salmon numbers have dwindled. A 2012 study by the Nez Perce Tribe’s Johnson Creek Artificial Propagation Enhancement (JCAPE) Project found that “fish chosen for hatchery rearing did not have a detectable negative impact on the fitness of wild fish” and “can successfully boost population size with minimal impacts on the fitness of salmon in the wild.”

Those in favor of preserving the dams also point to the carbon-free and consistent power they provide, roughly eight percent of the total electricity produced in Washington.

Dan James in the deputy administrator for the Bonneville Power Administration, which with other federal agencies manages the dams. He told panel members that unlike other forms of energy, “the hydro system is capable, and is in fact is planned for meeting sustained periods of high demand.”

Although some have argued that the electricity lost by breaching the dams could be replaced by other clean power sources, James said the technology doesn’t yet exist to store it long-term. Because of that, the hydropower would most likely be substituted with natural gas.

“The system has to operate all the time, and the system always needs to balance,” he said. “How do you meet the needs at any given time during the hottest day of the year (and) the coldest day of the year?”

The Snake River dams also enable wheat producers to transport their product to market through river barges and handles 40 percent of the country’s wheat.

“The dams are a critical component for trade,” Association of Washington Business President Kris Johnson told panel members. “They serve our growers, our seaports, moving Washington products to market with a limited carbon footprint.”

Those barges are also the only choice for some farmers, says Shaver Transportation Vice President of Marine Services Rob Rich.

“If you’re a wheat producer in Whitman County, if you’re a wheat producer in Columbia County, you’re shipping by barge, that is your option,” he said. “There isn’t a short line railroad for you to go to.”


  1. There are no fish ladders in the State of Idaho. I am continually surprised by the number of people that do not know this simple fact. And dams without fish ladders are fish killers. Habitat has everything to do with reduced Chinook numbers. In 1953, Forrest Hauck, fish biologist for the State of Idaho wrote, “The controversial Hells Canyon issue doesn’t look so bright. Either Hells Canyon dam (over 600 feet high) as proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation, or the series of three dams (with a combined heighth of over 600 feet and Brownlee exceeding 300 feet) will prevent the upstream passage of fish. At least there are no known, successfully operated fish-ways over 100 feet high. These dams, if constructed, will stop the runs of steelhead up the Snake and Weiser rivers, the spring chinooks up the Weiser, and the fall chinooks up the Snake river” (Hauck, F., The Salmon and The Steelhead, Idaho Wildlife Review, July–August 1953). Brownlee Dam was completed in 1958, before any of the Lower Snake River dams were built. It was the first of the three Hells Canyon Complex dams to be constructed. It inundated 177 miles of prime fall Chinook spawning habitat, where an estimated 500,000 fall Chinook once spawned. Since the area of the Lower Snake River dams was never used as a major spawning ground, removing these dams will not create a sudden increase in naturally produced fish. The Middle Snake River spawning ground for fall Chinook was eliminated several years before the first dam on the Lower Snake River was completed. Therefore, Lower Snake River dams cannot be blamed for the loss of this habitat caused by the Hells Canyon Complex. Spawning, feeding and rearing habitats are the issue. The knowledge of where these habitats were eliminated prior to the construction of Lower Snake River dams is necessary for decision makers in the breach debate. We need to create the greatest fish returns for the money spent. The book, “Whispering Past the Tombstones” identifies those lost fish habitats. We can only move forward properly by being informed.


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