Glimmers: Some Hope for a Solution for Northwest Dams?

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Snake River (Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay)

Earthshaking!  Hard to believe!  Transformational!  Dams are bad for salmon!  Who would have guessed?  So we learn from a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the problems of Columbia River system salmon and possible solutions to those problems.  Don’t yawn — there are hopeful signs amid the banalities.

The report, released July 12 by Biden’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), noted that “[u]nsurprisingly, given the broad weight of evidence, hydrosystem-related limiting factors have the largest impacts on survival for the most interior (furthest upstream) stocks, including all four extant lower Snake River basin stocks, and four of the six upper Columbia River stocks.“  Last month, the group put together by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray to look at alternatives to the dams’ existence issued a draft report that also found breaching those dams would be good news for salmon.  

Arguably, these blinding realizations were overdue. This handwriting has been on the wall – or the dam face – along the lower Snake for a long time.

April marked an anniversary that generally calls for celebration. In April of 1992, the federal government listed two populations of Snake River Chinook salmon as threatened species, one being Snake River sockeye – the all-but-extinct red fish of Idaho’s Redfish Lake – which had been listed the year before.  By now, some 13 Columbia Basin salmon populations have been listed.  (Those 13 are luckier than other populations that have long since gone extinct, only some destroyed by accident.)

Everything the federal government has done to bring back Columbia River system salmon has failed.  That isn’t news.  Nor is the idea that breaching dams on the lower Snake would help fish. 

So where does this leave us in the long drama about Snake River dams? Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service must prepare Biological Opinions (BiOps) on the ways operation of the federal Columbia River system dams affect endangered salmon.  Six years ago, when U.S. District Judge Michael Simon rejected the federal government’s latest BiOp — the fifth straight time a federal judge had rejected a Columbia River BiOp – Judge Simon didn’t order the feds to consider breaching dams on the lower Snake, but he dropped a broad hint.  “Judge Redden [Simon’s predecessor in the case, who had thrown out three previous BiOps], both formally in opinions and informally in letters to the parties, urged the relevant consulting and action agencies to consider breaching one or more of the four dams on the Lower Snake River,” Judge Simon said. “For more than 20 years, however, the federal agencies have ignored these admonishments and have continued to focus essentially on the same approach to saving the listed species…. These efforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing.”

The NOAA report suggests the Biden administration has made a serious effort to urge federal agencies to acknowledge reality. Yet until now, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, agencies have bent science and logic to look on the sunny side.

“The Bonneville Power Administration [(BPA) which markets and transmits power from the Columbia’s federal dam system] and its partners are actively expanding the reach of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead by improving dam passage, removing barriers, and rehabilitating degraded habitat,” proclaims a federal government web site. It goes on to say, “The federal program to protect these fish is the largest of its kind in the nation. The program has increased survival of fish passing mainstem dams, returned fish to stretches of tributaries where they had been absent for decades, managed predation, and modernized hatcheries. The success hinges on partnerships between BPA, the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation and tribes, states, local and non-government organizations.”

There has always been good news, always encouraging statistics.  And yet, it all seems like the body counts that the government used to measure success during much of the Vietnam War, when the government declared that since we’ve killed X number of enemy soldiers, therefore we’re making progress.  Those numbers may even have been accurate, but they were, in the end, irrelevant.  We weren’t winning.  

Is anybody winning on the Columbia River?  Certainly not the fish.  The feds have repeatedly lost battles in federal court.  But they and the established economic interests that benefit from the river have been winning the war – if winning means largely preserving the status quo.

The federal government started building dams on the Columbia River system during the Great Depression. Many were classic New Deal public works projects.  The dams on the lower Snake came late to the party.  They were completed from 1961 to 1975, long after New Deal idealism had faded away and the Depression had become a memory.  The dams’ impact hasn’t been trivial.  As producers of electricity, they represent a capacity of 3,500 megawatts (MW) and a firm peaking capacity of 2,300 MW; they actually generated 900 average MW a year.  They make possible a lock system that has made Lewiston, Idaho a “deepwater port,” from which barges can haul grain downstream to lower Columbia ports and up which tour boats can haul tourists.  They have also created pools of water from which a handful of irrigators can pump water and they have raised groundwater to levels at which other irrigators can pump without sinking deep wells.

Federal agencies have done their best to protect all that, pretending that what was being done on behalf of fish and orcas (which feed on salmon at the mouth of the Columbia) was all that needed doing.  NOAA’s conversion is very recent.  Closer to home, the agency tried to avoid listing Southern Resident Killer Whales – aka Puget Sound orcas – then tried to keep from listing them as endangered, rather than merely threatened.  But “endangered” they clearly are, and their plight has helped make Snake River fish and dams into a big issue.  

Some people have cared about the fish and dams for a long time.  Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS), which has long argued for dam breaching and has been a plaintiff in the victorious suits against federal BiOps, was formed in 1991, after the first Snake River salmon were listed.  But the Snake seemed more of a niche issue until people started to grasp the relationship between orcas and Chinook salmon, and in particular Chinook salmon from the Snake.  

Why focus on Chinook? Well, most people who eat salmon think they’re pretty tasty, as do Southern Resident Killer Whales.  Chinook are the largest and fattiest salmon, so they give an orca the biggest payoff for the energy it expends chasing fish. The killer whales don’t just stay in Puget Sound (where their main supply of Chinook comes from Canada’s Fraser River.)  They cover a lot of ground – make that water – along the Pacific Coast, eating salmon from different runs at different times of year.  The mouth of the Columbia has been one of their stops. At the end of winter, when orcas are hard up for food, they’ve historically been able to find fat Chinook ready to make the long swim upstream to the Snake.  Food for hungry orcas – or, increasingly, not.

In its 2014 Columbia River BiOp, NOAA conceded that the Snake’s Chinooks were critical to the Southern Resident Killer whales. But no need to worry, because the existing hatchery system could keep the Chinook population from declining.  That was rather cold comfort.  If you assume that there aren’t enough salmon to feed the current, depleted orca population, then if we foresee a larger orca population, we pretty well need a larger supply of their prey.  Business as usual just can’t get us there.

In its BiOp, NOAA also detailed the possible impacts of climate change, but  suggested that the inadequate measures already taken to preserve Columbia River system salmon populations without climate change would somehow preserve them from the additional threat of climate change, too.  This was questionable accounting.

This is not to say that the feds have done anything.  As Judge Simon noted, they’ve spent a lot on salmon problems.  It just hasn’t restored the fish.  They haven’t spent all that money in a legal vacuum.  They can’t just ignore the Northwest Power Planning Act, passed in 1980 to prevent a scramble among power users for Columbia River system kilowatts, which explicitly requires “equitable” treatment of fish and wildlife.  The money spent largely on fish habitat along the Columbia – like the money spent on habitat for listed Chinook around Puget Sound – has just become a cost of doing business.

Just as piles of money have been spent to preserve the status quo, piles will have to be spent to move on from the status quo.  Look at how the feds got virtually all the relevant interest groups to support taking out the Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula: it bought them off.  That’s what it will take on the Snake River.  And that’s what people have finally started talking seriously about.

Regionally, an Idaho Republican Congressman, of all people, started the ball rolling.  Rep. Mike Simpson proposed a plan that would breach the dams while making the Idaho communities and interest groups that benefit from them more than whole.  The estimated price tag for Simpson’s plan would be $33 billion – which even advocates of breaching think is implausibly steep – but even if Simpson’s plan is doomed, it has at least helped jump-start planning efforts that may have a better chance.

“Something needs to be done in a big way, and it needs to be done now,” the manager of the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management,  Dave Johnson, told the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council, last year. “The tribe thinks that a big initiative like . . . Congressman Simpson is proposing kind of hits the mark.”

Other people have started looking at the problems.  No one else has come up with a plan. The press release for the Inslee-Murray draft report says the report outlines an actionable plan. Well, maybe. Sorta. We’ll see what happens when the final report comes out later this month. Even with a real plan, those dams won’t be breached unless Congress says so. This Congress? The post-mid-terms Congress? It’s possible, but. . . ..

For instance, the Inslee-Murray group’s draft report talks about replacing the power generated at the dams, the barge and cruise boat transportation made possible by the lock system, the irrigation, the recreation spending, and the economics of the ports to which the barges and cruise vessels go.  The group says most but not all of this can be replaced.  It envisions a very inclusive regional discussion of replacement.  The draft report estimates the cost of replacing the dams’ many services at $10.3-27.2 billion – and says that doesn’t take everything into account.  And it warns that the dams shouldn’t be breached – if they should be breached at all – until the alternatives are already in place.

Simpson’s numbers may or may not be realistic, but one also assumes that Washington’s Democratic political leaders – who have in general shown zero political leadership on this issue – would hate to see the credit for a real solution go to an Idaho Republican  Still, the Inslee-Murray process may be the most promising approach to move the politics of lower Snake dam removal past guaranteed stalemate 

Not that the report can turn the tide by itself.  “The Murray-Inslee Report will provide even more support for taking action now to restore the lower Snake River and invest in the Northwest,” Nez Perce Vice-Chairman Shannon F. Wheeler has said.  But the Nez Perce know that dam removal can only happen with national leadership and support.  Wheeler added that “[n]ow is the time for national leadership and action from the Administration and Congress to work on solutions to address a status quo that is antiquated and only works for a select few to provide a future that would work for everyone.”

Where will all the needed billions come from?  For most of the past 30 years, the answer was nowhere, since nobody was volunteering to spread around that much cash. Then came the pandemic and the 2020 election and presto! The dam-removal fairy appeared – maybe — in the form of the $1.2 billion federal infrastructure bill (aka the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.)  People who have been working for years to get rid of those dams see this as a unique – but narrow – window.  True, the infrastructure legislation didn’t have a line item for dam removal.  But it contains money for clean energy, which could help replace the dams’ power generation with renewables, and money for ports and waterways, which could help deal with loss of the barge transportation link that relies on the dams. There’s also money for both railroads outside the Northeast corridor and electrification of freight vehicles, which could help replace relatively low-carbon barge transportation with low-carbon alternatives. 

Needless to say, a lot of hands will be grabbing for every last dollar.  But if the region is more-or-less united behind dam breaching, this could be the one great chance to get it done. It’s a fleeting chance, since the window of time to take advantage of that one-time federal cornucopia may close after the 2022 elections – just months away.

A casual reader may reasonably assume that what Simpson has proposed and the Inslee-Murray group has envisioned would be new subsidies to economic interests in a region about which few coastal residents care.  They would be new, but there’s nothing new about subsidies to this part of inland Washington. The existing economic interest groups are nestled in a whole web of subsidies that basically represent that continuing influence of the New Deal.  The existing subsidies have been around so long that people just regard them as the way things are. 

If people object to dam breaching because the welfare of economies and communities in arid rural areas is no longer a national priority – then breaching will be a tough sell.  Against this is the fact that most of those beneficiaries can presumably be won over (bought off) by new subsidies, equal to or greater than the old ones.  That’s what this moment promises.  

Look at the ideas that Simpson has laid out on his web site: money to redo the Lewiston waterfront; to create a center for energy-storage research, with hubs in the Tri Cities and at Lewiston; money for tourism development; research into disposing of agricultural wastes, and on and on.

Unless virtually all interest groups buy into the process, dam removal will almost certainly be  a political dead end.  You can think of an effort to make all the vested interests whole as merely rewarding economic actors whose time has passed.  Or you can see it rather like the enlightened efforts in poor tropical countries to give local populations stakes in conserving forests or, say, mountain gorillas. 

Concern – real and opportunistic – over climate change has made the power generated at the dams more important than ever.  But it has made Snake River salmon more important, too.

The changing climate has done or threatens to do a number of adverse things.  As air temperatures rise, water temperatures rise, too, and salmon need cold water.  In time, virtually all the spawning streams in the Columbia Basin may grow too warm for salmon to actually use – except for the streams in British Columbia, walled off by the Grand Coulee and chief Joseph dams and the streams high up in the Idaho wilderness that flow into the Snake.  Those fish runs diminished by the lower Snake dams may be among the few with long-term prospects of success.

Already, water temperatures in the reservoirs behind dams have risen to unsafe levels.  Hot water was killing salmon last year.  When dams hold water back, they not only create barriers for fish; they also heat the water trapped in reservoirs, raising temperatures to levels unhealthy for salmon but good for salmon predators.  Last summer, temperatures in reservoirs on the mainstem Columbia River raised alarms.  Breaching the dams on the lower Snake would clearly lower water temperatures in the Snake itself.  Studies show that it would also lower temperatures in the mainstem Columbia reservoirs downstream.  Without simply draining those reservoirs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to bring water temperatures down.  The NOAA study says that restoring normal flows would “reduce thermal loading in the lower Snake River and increase benefits of cold-water releases from Dworshak Reservoir.”  That reservoir lies on a Snake tributary, Idaho’s North Fork Clearwater River.

Halting or at least moderating climate change should, of course, be the overriding goal.  That makes the prospect of losing the carbon-free power produced by four lower Snake dams potentially tricky.  Of course, one can replace the power with wind, solar, conservation, other things.  But one must also replace the power that big utilities in Washington and Oregon – Bellevue-based PSE, Spokane-based Arista, Portland-based PGE – will stop getting from Montana’s Colstrip coal plants in 2025.  But replacing the lower Snake dams power can be done. The draft Inslee-Murray report estimates the replacement cost at $8.3 billion-$18.3 billion.  A report done four years ago for NW Energy Coalition ago looked at a number of alternatives, and found that the most promising would add only $1.28 a month to the electric bill of a household that used Bonneville power, and would increase greenhouse gas emissions by only 1 percent.  Renewable costs have dropped sharply since then, and the numbers almost certainly look much better.  

Arguably, if we replace the dams with wind and solar, the whole system will be better off.  NW Energy Coalition suggested earlier this year that while the dams produce about 4 percent of the region’s power, “this generation is highly seasonal: 51 percent of the LSR dams’ annual output is from March to June. When they produce the most output is when the rest of the system is also producing significant output – often in excess of customer demand. Clean energy resources can replace and improve on these energy services, providing more output in summer and winter, when power is actually needed, resulting in better year-round reliability.”

All else being equal, replacing barge transportation with trucks and trains would definitely increase carbon emissions.  But NW Energy Coalition executive director Nancy Hirsh says that’s not inevitable: the rails and the trucks could be electrified.  Electric trains are old technology: the Milwaukee Road brought an all-electric transcontinental railroad to Seattle in 1909. The Port of Los Angeles started rolling out electric trucks in 2008. Driving range between charges is still an issue, but Kenworth and other manufacturers have trotted out powerful electric semi tractors. 

The NOAA report said bluntly that “[f]or Snake River stocks, it is essential that the lower Snake River be restored via dam breaching.” Nevertheless, breaching might well be necessary but not sufficient. The fish would still have to deal with a variety of other hazards, some detailed in the NOAA report, including other dams, historic habitat loss, fish hooks, sometimes-adverse ocean conditions, and predators. (The orcas would still have to deal with the depletion of other salmon populations, water pollution, underwater noise, hassling by human beings in boats.)

Dam breaching would probably be necessary but not sufficient to restore the salmon runs.  The fish would still have to deal with a variety of other hazards, including other dams, historic habitat loss, fish hooks, ocean conditions including temperature shifts and acidification, and predators.  (The orcas would still have to deal with the depletion of other salmon populations, water pollution, underwater noise, hassling by human beings in boats.)

So breaching the Snake’s dams is a gamble. But what are the alternatives?  We could do absolutely nothing (although that would violate existing laws.)  Or we could keep doing exactly what we’ve been doing — which has also cost billions of dollars and hasn’t worked.  If we’re going to spend billions one way or another, why not try something that just might work? 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Would think that eliminating electric power generation, before the replacement source is operable, is foolish. Saving salmon runs because orcas and sea lions need food at the base of the Columbia River ALSO seems a stretch.
    What am I missing ?

  2. Dan: Good article, and I can see the steam coming from your ears!

    First off, if this was a “do over” we agree the Lower Snake dams should not have been built. Even worse, the Idaho Power’s higher Hells Canyon dams, that provide 70% of Idaho’s power, should never have been built. They wiped out 80% of the Snake River Chinook habitat and many other salmon runs. https://www.idahopress.com/eyeonboise/tribe-others-challenge-agreement-re-hells-canyon-dam-relicensing/article_2a62e9cb-7179-5ddd-8ca9-7db0d278c23f.html .

    But to our current situation, beginning with the fact that for decades the Corps and BPA were largely indifferent as to our salmon populations.

    Several laws, and too many Federal Judges, are involved, including the NW Power Act of 1980, and the Endangered Species Act.

    The Power Act’s “fish and wildlife” provides that (1) the BPA’s (ratepayers) fund is to treat fish and power “equitably”, which has been interpreted as equally. Financially, BPA has done so and more, more recently agreeing at the request of Tribes and States that they are the drivers on “what works” for fish and, in the process, neutering the Act’s Northwest Planning Council’s role. (2) The Act’s legislative history also strongly suggests that the quid pro quo was these actions would obviate the need for ESA listings.

    But Idaho poisoned poisoned by Red Fish Lake sockeye to make way for “trophy trout” and since then all bets are off.

    Yes, dams kill fish.

    Mitigation measures cannot make up for what man has done to nature. Nor could dam removal. A “test “drawdown” of the dams at State and Tribal request in 1992 proved what would not work for fish, and there is no reason to believe removal would be more beneficial.https://lmtribune.com/northwest/snake-river-drawdown-corps-gives-it-a-try-test-during-march-will-see-lower-granite/article_f8da9d36-2c66-54ed-afe7-f49560172496.html#:~:text=The%20drawdown%20will%20continue%20until%20the%20water%20level,allow%20the%20reservoir%20to%20refill%20by%20April%201.

    And to argue for removal in the hopes of saving the Puget Sound’s “orcas” is the weakest straw.

    Hypothetically, if Congress were disposed to save Puget Sound orca’s, and Seattle ratepayers would bear the full cost, there might be a more interesting debate.

    But all Northwest ratepayers would pay the billions to remove the dams and the billions more for replacement power. And because “green energy” is not “firm” 24/7 this would likely require gas turbines, which negatively impact air quality and contribute to global warming.

    And to transport grain and other goods – which now move pollution free over water – trucks and trains would be needed. More global warming and maybe more roads and trackage. And more global warming.

    Life doesn’t usually give us mulligans to correct what we would have avoided if we could have seen the future. That’s the situation here.

    So again, interesting article but no sale.

  3. So your choice of photo is Jackson Lake Dam with Mount Moran of the Tetons in Wyoming. Not a representative image of the lower Snake River dams you write of breaching. This dam is at mile zero of the Snake River. There are 19 dams on the Snake downstream of this one.

  4. Dan: Another smart, well-researched look at a regional challenge. I agree, with one deep reservation, noted below.
    The Snake River dams never should have been built. But they were built, with major benefits to surrounding economies and huge consequences for salmon runs. Removing the dams would be enormously expensive – in dollars and cross-state conflicts. After half a century, those dams have become part of the SE Washington landscape and economy. If we’re going to rip them out, we need to be reasonably assured of an environmental benefit.
    Dams are not the only cause of disappearing salmon. The Columbia is at the southern extreme of salmon spawning habitat, and that range is shifting north with climate change. Alaska’s Bristol Bay, at the northern extreme, just had another huge sockeye run. But the Fraser River, with headwaters a few miles from the Columbia, was never dammed. Sockeye migrate hundreds of miles into BC each year – a historical average of 10 million per year, 30 million on the high years. But Fraser runs have been collapsing – fewer than 300,000 in 2020. Biologists point to a variety of factors – rockslides, wildfire smoke, stream degradation, but mostly ocean temperatures linked to climate change.
    Fraser and Columbia River sockeye migrate across the same ocean. Barring a political and environmental miracle, we can’t expect a reversal of climate change in our lifetimes. What is the risk of spending billions on dam removal, antagonizing our neighbors in Eastern Washington, and getting nothing in return?

  5. Early in the article we learn “Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS), which has long argued for dam breaching and has been a plaintiff in the victorious suits…” Missing from that story is that SOS has never asked THE COURT for dam breaching.

    Like most all other salmon conservation groups, they speak in their fund raising efforts that they have “long argued for dam breaching” but they have never placed that argument where it matters most. (see http://bluefish.org/askcourt.htm)

    Why do you suppose that is?

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