Snake River dams key to economy

By Don C. Brunell

There are some dams that should come down and those that shouldn’t.

Hopefully, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts its review of the 14 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, that will become abundantly clear. That review is expected to be ready for public comment in late 2020.

Here is the difference.

Demolishing the two dams on the Elwha River west of Port Angeles was a good thing. They were built in the early 1900s to bring electricity to the Olympic Peninsula at a time when salmon and steelhead were plentiful in other Pacific Northwest rivers. Neither dam had fish ladders.

On the Elwha, the issue was clear: removing the dams allowed salmon and steelhead to move upstream to spawn. Neither could provide flood protection, irrigate farmlands or were navigable.

But breaching the four lower Snake River dams is entirely different.

For one thing, the billions of dollars paid by Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers to improve fish passage and spawning habitat throughout the Columbia/Snake river system is now paying off.

It wasn’t always that way. In 1992, a single male sockeye salmon, dubbed Lonesome Larry, managed to swim 900 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to Redfish Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. By 2011, the Idaho Fish and Game Department reported that 1,070 sockeye returned to Redfish to spawn. 

Of the 13 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act, only four migrate through the lower Snake River dams.

The bigger problem has been young fish swimming downstream to the ocean where they are intercepted by hordes of natural predators such as cormorants. As for dams, Northwest River Partners reports survival through the Snake River dams for young salmon averages 97 percent. It is even better for juvenile steelhead at 99.5 percent.

Salmon maturing in the ocean must dodge the engulfing nets from fleets of giant trawlers, many of which are foreign. The small percentage of mature salmon that return to the Columbia and Snake also must run the gauntlet of seals, sea lions, nets and fishing lines.

While the Elwha dams produced very little electricity, the four Snake River dams can provide enough electricity for 1.87 million homes when generating at full capacity. On average, they contribute 5 percent of the Northwest’s electricity supply.

A 2015 BPA reliability analysis concluded that replacement of the lower Snake Dams with natural gas generation would increase the region’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million to 2.6 million metric tons annually.

The network of dams is the marine highway created on the Columbia and Snake rivers. It is the most environmentally friendly way to move cargo from Lewiston to Astoria. A tug pushing a barge can haul a ton of wheat 576 miles on a single gallon of fuel. For comparison, if the dams were breached in 2017, it would have taken 35,140 rail cars, or 135,000 semi-trucks to move the cargo that was barged on the Snake River that year.

Ten percent of all Northwest exports pass through the four lower Snake River dams, which include Ice Harbor Lock and Dam outside Burbank, Lower Monumental Dam south of Kahlotus, Little Goose Lock and Dam near Starbuck and Lower Granite Lake Dam 22 miles south of Colfax.

These dams generate $20 billion in trade, commerce and recreation income. Water from their reservoirs nourishes thousands of farms, orchards and vineyards.

“In the end, when the latest study and public hearings are done, the conclusion should be the same as the previous efforts: the Lower Snake River dams must remain,” Walla Walla’s Union-Bulletin concluded in a 2016 editorial.

While Gov. Inslee got his appropriation of $750,000 for stakeholder input on Snake River dam removal, our money should be directed on how to improve, not remove, those dams.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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