We are learning many painful lessons during the coronavirus shutdown. A key lesson that if a policy isn’t economically sustainable, it isn’t environmentally sustainable. This is a particularly important lesson to remember when considering how to promote recovery of salmon and steelhead populations on the Snake River.
Earlier this year, the federal agencies finished the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Columbia and Snake rivers, focusing on what to do with the four dams on the Lower Snake River.
Their research concluded that when balancing the environmental and economic factors, leaving the dams in place while improving fish passage is the best strategy. Just a couple months after the EIS was released, that conclusion is proving to be even more sound.
Estimates of the cost to destroy the dams vary, but even those who advocate removal admit it will cost $1 billion.
Estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers are higher. Add to that the annual cost of replacing the electrical generation that would be lost if the dams are destroyed. That could amount to another $1 billion a year for ratepayers.
Even the Northwest Energy Coalition, which favors destroying the dams, admits electricity costs will go up significantly.
Those are just the direct costs. The cost to the regional economy would also be significant.
The dams were originally constructed to facilitate shipment of goods down the Snake. The loss of that transportation would impact farmers who would have to shift to more expensive modes of transportation.
The draft EIS estimates destroying the dams could increase transportation costs by up to 33 percent on average.
The economic costs, however, are only part of the equation. The EIS found there would be increased environmental damage.
Removing the dams would increase CO2 emissions by about 10 percent across the Northwest because the hydro power would have to be replaced in part by natural gas generation.
The dams produce electricity in the morning and at dinner time when it is needed to meet the highest levels of demand.
Solar, by comparison, generates electricity in the middle of the day, but not when demand is highest in the evening. Wind generates most of its electricity at night and in the very early morning, when demand is low.
Simply replacing the electricity from the dams with wind or solar is not possible.
Those who support destroying the dams argue it is necessary to help salmon recovery and provide additional forage for the Southern Resident Killer Orca Whales in Puget Sound. Dam removal, however, is an extremely poor way to achieve that goal.
First, as the economic downturn is reminding us, money is precious and should be put where it can make the most difference.
Spending billions on just one project would put all our eggs into one salmon-recovery basket. The total state budget for salmon recovery in Puget Sound and along the Washington coast is about $50 million a year.
The cost to remove the dams would be as much as 20 years of salmon recovery in the state. The additional cost to replace the electricity is on top of that. Arguing we can just find more money to do both is either oblivious or irresponsible.
Second, although recovery is slow on the Snake River, the population of Chinook salmon is increasing.
Despite a cyclical downturn in the last few years, the average number of Chinook passing Lower Granite Dam over the last 10 years was the highest of the last five decades. According to the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, Fall Chinook on the Snake are already above the recovery target.
That is not the case in Puget Sound, where Chinook populations are declining. Of the 22 populations of Chinook in Puget Sound, none are meeting the recovery goal. None.
What’s more, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife says Puget Sound Chinook are the most important source of forage for the Southern Resident orca. The Snake, by way of comparison, is barely in the top 10.
Putting our limited resources to use where they are most needed and will do the most good should be obvious.
The federal agencies are now going through public comments and will provide responses in the near future. Let’s hope they stick to the science and economics that guided their original good decision. Preserving the dams provides the resources to keep our economy strong and provides the funding to help salmon and steelhead recover across our region.
Todd Myers is environmental director for the Washington Policy Center.
(5/21/2020) Editor's note: This column has been modified to remove a disputed quote.
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