As a state work group continues discussions regarding the future of the lower Snake River dams related to salmon recovery efforts, a new study by an economic consulting group claims that breaching those dams could cost the country $2.3 billion over the next 30 years.
Conducted for the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), the study’s conclusion reflects previous warnings made by regional agricultural advocates and public utility providers regarding the role these dams play in providing clean energy and less expensive means of transporting produce.
The four lower Snake River dams are the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. Several endangered salmon species returning from the Pacific Ocean must pass through those dams in order to reach habitat further upstream, while juvenile salmon must travel downstream to reach the ocean. According to a September preliminary survival estimate by NOAA Fisheries, the estimated survival for Snake River yearling salmon traveling from the Lower Granite Dam to Bonneville Dam was 52.6 percent – roughly the same as the 20-year average between 1999-2019 (52.1 percent).
Despite enormous federal investments made to improve fish passage, advocates of breaching the dams argue that it is necessary in order for these salmon populations to increase. Those opposed to breaching offer a variety of arguments ranging from the cost to the regional economic impacts. The dams allow for several southeast Washington ports and wheat producers to barge their goods rather than transport by rail or truck.
According to the FCS Group study, transportation and storage costs would “likely” increase by 50-100 percent for grain suppliers and shippers without the barging system. Breaching the dams would also require $1.6 billion in land-based transportation expansion, including highway improvements and hundreds of miles of short-line rail track.
Another stated benefit of the dams is that it allows for farming in the region. The new study concluded that annual farm subsidies would have to increase by $38.8 million to prevent the risk of bankruptcy for more than 1,100 farms – though this would apply chiefly to wheat farmers, not irrigators.
Nevertheless, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association (CSRIA) claims that tens of thousands of acres of irrigated land would be offline for several years. The association represents farming operations that irrigate approximately 300,000 acres of eastern Washington farmland. In November, the association published a white paper that concluded breaching the dams would affect 91,000 acres and require $400-$600 million in mitigation to the landowners from the state and federal government. Those findings were based in part on feedback from 12 different association members actively seeking new farmland as to how much they would pay for impacted land if it were affected by dam removal plans.
CSRIA Board Representative Darryll Olsen, Ph.D. told Lens that members interviewed “would be willing to accept the risk of the breaching…if they knew there would be some compensation, and it’s really hard to determine what it is. They would be willing to purchase the asset at a discount.”
If breaching did occur and mitigation was involved in the decision, Olsen said the general expectation is that the state of Washington and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) would split the bill paid to landowners and would be paid for through debt service.
“In return, the irrigators are totally responsible for the mitigation,” Olsen said. “They have to fix the pump stations; they have to restore any lost markets on the agricultural product. It’s going to take 2-4 years anyway if you did any kind of a breaching action.”
Although CSRIA opposes breaching and instead favors an exemption from federal environmental laws, Olsen says the association is open to reservoir drawdowns at various dams.
The clean energy generated by the dams – which constitutes seven percent of all electricity in Washington state – has also been emphasized following the passage of state legislation last year mandating a shift to carbon-neutral energy by 2035 and carbon-free by 2045 in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The FCS Group study concluded that removing the four dams would increase carbon emissions would increase emissions by truck and rail equal to that of a coal-fired power plant every 5-6 years.
An advantage of hydropower over other clean energy sources is that it can provide baseline stability when other energy sources aren’t operating, a fact cited by public utilities that have passed resolutions in support of the dams. A 2018 study by the Northwest Energy Coalition claims that “dam replacement using clean resources is achievable from both a technical planning regional reliability/adequacy standpoint, and from a resources availability standpoint.” The study also argues that “if implemented in conjunction with a regional GHG reduction policy, substantial reductions in GHG emissions can be achieved.”
However, Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers has criticized the study’s conclusions, arguing that replacing the hydropower with other clean energy would require the combined solar power production of Texas and Utah – and then it would only provide 20 percent of the total new electricity required.
Myers told Lens that the new study is “not even contradicting the Northwest Energy Coalition study, which said energy costs would increase and CO2 emissions would increase. What is being fought over is how much. What we’re debating here is not whether it will cost more. Everybody admits that. We’re not debating it will increase CO2 emissions.”
The argument that removing the dams is necessary for salmon recovery has also been disputed by NOAA Fisheries, which submitted an analysis last year as part of the Columbia River Systems Operation Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared by three federal agencies that instead advocated habitat restoration. Aside from the economic effects of eliminating the dams, the Bonneville Power Administration estimates breaching them would cost $2.6 billion.
Although eliminating the dams requires congressional authorization, the state has explored the issue through Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force, as well as a Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Engagement that released its preliminary report last month. Public comment on the report lasts until Jan. 24. The Columbia River Systems Operation EIS is expected to be released in February.