Snake River dam removal distracts from salmon recovery efforts

By Todd Myers

Should Washington state risk 11 years of salmon recovery funding on something scientists believe will do little to increase salmon populations? How about eliminating electricity generation equivalent to every solar panel and wind turbine in Washington state?

Essentially, those arguing we need to destroy the Snake River dams suggest we do both. Focusing on the four Lower Snake River dams is a deadly distraction from efforts to recover salmon across the Northwest—one that could backfire badly.

As a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, I am frustrated by the push to destroy the dams, which is not simply misguided — it is irresponsible.

Some activists claim Snake River salmon are near extinction. This is a familiar refrain. In 1999, activists bought an ad in The New York Times claiming that unless the dams were removed, “wild Snake River spring chinook salmon … will be extinct by 2017.” When 2017 arrived, the Snake River Chinook population was six times larger than in 1999.

Despite their poor record, advocates of dam destruction insist this time they are right. Fisheries scientists disagree.

In 2017, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries noted the dams are “very close to achieving, or have already achieved, the juvenile dam passage survival objective of 96 percent for yearling Chinook salmon and steelhead migrants.” Destroying the dams would increase the survival rate by, at best, a few percentage points.

In fact, NOAA fisheries and other scientists argue salmon may not be helped by destroying the dams. UCLA Professor Peter Kareiva, the former science director for The Nature Conservancy, analyzed the impact of the Snake River dams while at NOAA Fisheries in the early 2000s. He now argues, “it is not certain that dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river” on the Snake.

Some now claim destroying the dams would help the struggling southern resident killer whales in Puget Sound. Again, scientists disagree. NOAA Fisheries and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife prioritized the most important watersheds for Puget Sound orca, ranking the Snake River ninth overall. Destroying the dams, NOAA Fisheries concluded, “would result in only a marginal change in the total salmon available to the killer whales.”

Worse, spending scarce resources on the dams would mean other salmon-recovery projects would go unfunded. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost to remove the dams would be more than $1 billion — equal to more than 11 years of state salmon recovery funding. We asked University of Washington scientist Deborah Giles, who is pushing to destroy the dams, where that money would come from. She responded by citing Karl Marx, writing, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” claiming the federal government could magically find the money. Aside from the oddity of unselfconsciously quoting Karl Marx, if an additional $1 billion was available, it should go to watersheds the state Department of Fish and Wildlife says are most important to orca, not destroying the dams.

The dams are responsible for about
7 percent of Washington’s electricity generation, more than all wind and solar in the state combined. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council told the Legislature last year that the region faces an energy shortage in upcoming years, noting that dam removal would make that shortage worse.

Despite that, some advocates of dam destruction claim we could easily replace the electricity they generate. This is nonsense and contradicted by their own allies. Last year, the NW Energy Coalition, which supports removing the dams, found it would cost an additional $400 million a year in electricity costs to replace part, but not all, of the energy from the dams. They also admit it would increase carbon dioxide emissions because some energy would be replaced by natural gas.

Although we are in a down cycle, salmon populations along the Snake River are larger today than two decades ago. Some, however, continue to ignore the latest science, pushing policies that would increase air pollution, raise electricity rates and divert money from effective salmon recovery. Preserving the Snake River dams isn’t just good for our economy, farmers and energy – it is good for the environment.

Todd Myers is a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and environmental director for the Washington Policy Center, which has offices in the Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org.

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