A U.S. District Court judge in 2016 issued a ruling mandating that a new draft environmental impact statement (EIS) conducted by the three federal agencies overseeing the lower Snake River dams “may well require” breaching them to help salmon recovery efforts. A new EIS released Feb. 28 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) concludes that while breaching them would aid salmon, the move would lead to blackouts, cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year to replace the hydropower and increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The EIS conclusions reflect prior statements made to Lens last year by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, which conducted an analysis as part of the EIS. That analysis instead advocated habitat restoration.
Although Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9) wrote in a statement that “this should be the end of it,” Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers told Lens that the EIS will “absolutely not” end the debate over the dams. Meanwhile, both the House and Senate operating budget still provide half of the $750,00 appropriated in the 2019-21 budget to fund a study of removing the dams.
The lower Snake River dams are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite, all located in southeastern Washington. Advocates for breaching the dams have long argued that their removal is necessary to help several endangered salmon species that must navigate the dam system. However, opponents have emphasized the many benefits provided by the dams, including a barging system, recreational opportunities and carbon-free hydropower that makes up roughly seven percent of total state electricity. According to the EIS, removing the dams would remove 47,926 acres of irrigated land.
The new EIS noted that while “breaching of the lower Snake River projects would have major long-term beneficial effects to resident fish in the Snake River due to improved rearing and migration conditions,” it also found this scenario would threaten the state’s energy grid reliability and “has the highest adverse impacts to other resources, especially social and economic effects.”
Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill mandating that utilities provide 100 percent carbon-neutral energy by 2035 and carbon-free energy by 2045. However, there are ongoing concerns with the baseline stability provided by hydropower but not other clean energy sources with current technology.
The EIS cautioned that if the dams were removed “the region would face the likelihood of a loss of load event, e.g. a power blackout, nearly one in every seven years.” The least expensive path toward replacing hydropower with other energy would cost roughly $200 million a year. A “zero-carbon” energy portfolio would cost $527 million annually, money that Myers said could be invested in salmon recovery.
“I think that’s a tradeoff that’s not addressed in the EIS or by the environmental community,” he said.
Further, the EIS found that breaching the dams could increase GHG emissions by an additional 3.3 metric tons annually if the hydropower were replaced with natural gas. That would be a 10-percent increase in power-generated emissions in the Pacific Northwest. On top of that, the loss of the dams would eliminate the use of low-emission barges in favor of freight or trucking, raising freight rates as well as increasing road usage.
The public comment period for draft the EIS lasts until April 13.