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Breaching Dams Would Help Salmon, Feds Say, but Decline to Do So

The federal agencies that run 14 dams in the Columbia River Basin released a long-awaited analysis Friday on how they will keep salmon from going extinct. Not included in the suite of measures is the action the agencies said would help salmon and steelhead most – breaching four dams along the Snake River.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – The federal agencies that run 14 dams in the Columbia River Basin released a long-awaited analysis Friday on how they will keep salmon from going extinct. Not included in the suite of measures is the action the agencies said would help salmon and steelhead most – breaching four dams along the Snake River.

Salmon are struggling to survive in the Pacific Northwest. They face poor ocean conditions, less water in streams and rivers and a network of dams that block their passage, heat the rivers and encourage predators. An average of just two million salmon and steelhead return to the Columbia River and its tributaries each year – a fraction of the 16 million annual return estimated in the 1800s. And nearly half of today’s returns are hatchery fish that won’t spawn in the wild. Bull trout, sturgeon and lamprey are also in decline. Despite decades of work and billions spent trying to make the dams less harmful to salmon and steelhead, the same 13 species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1992 remain there.

Salmon aren’t the only iconic species at risk. Southern Resident killer whales, a species of orca that live in the Salish Sea near Seattle, are critically endangered, in part because they are starving for Chinook salmon. They also face a barrage of toxic water and noise from ships that interferes with their sonic ability to communicate and detect nearby fish.

The dams inundated important cultural sites for area tribes, like the major fishing spots at Celilo and Kettle Falls. Declining salmon also imperiled tribes’ ability to fish for subsistence – a major condition of their agreements to cede their land to the U.S. Government and a right guaranteed in the treaties memorializing those deals.

Dave Johnson, manager for the Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries Department, underscored that point at a January hearing on dam removal.

“It always seems as if somebody else’s livelihood is more sacrosanct than others,” Johnson said. “And we are the only ones with a guaranteed livelihood. In the treaties it said, ‘You’re always going to have that livelihood.’ The U.S. got millions and millions of acres of land yet we haven’t really had any harvest for years.”

A lawsuit launched in 2001 by the National Wildlife Federation and since joined by states and tribes has forced the government to reevaluate its operation of the 14 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Since then, the government has written five different plans on how to operate its dams without violating the Endangered Species Act. All have been struck down by federal judges.

In 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered the government to perform a sixth redo of its environmental impact statement. He criticized the agencies for insisting that measures similar to those already in place would work to recover salmon, saying the system “cries out for a new approach.” This time, Simon wrote, the government was required to fully evaluate breaching four dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose and Lower Granite – that impede the Washington reach of the Snake River, the Columbia’s largest tributary.


The Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration released the draft version of that plan on Friday. On the table were five options, including taking no action, maximizing the dams’ power generation, increasing the amount of water spilled over the top of the dams to help young salmon swim out to sea, funneling additional money and effort into the restoration of fish habitat, and breaching the dams. And though the agencies noted that breaching the dams would “provide the highest benefits” to endangered salmon, they didn’t include that action in the plan they want to adopt.

The rate of return for young salmon and steelhead migrating out to sea from the Lower Granite Dam would improve by 170%, the agencies wrote. But they rejected that option, detailing the loss of clean electricity it would create.

“Despite the major benefits to fish expected from [breaching the dams], this alternative was not identified as the Preferred Alternative due to the adverse impacts to other resources such as transportation, power reliability and affordability, and greenhouse gas emissions,” the agencies wrote.

Instead, the agencies said they want to incorporate elements of each of the five options they considered, such as increasing spill and flooding islands in the reservoirs behind the dams, where predatory birds like to nest, while retaining the dams and their capacity for hydropower generation.

Snake River Dams generate between 730 and 2,000 megawatts at the peak of winter production. Breaching would increase the risk of power shortages from the current risk of having one year of shortages every 15 years. Instead, blackouts could occur once every seven years.

That was calculated using the region’s current number of coal-fired power plants. The agency modeled two scenarios for replacing the power generated at the Snake River dams. The cheapest would employ increased natural gas. Improving the grid to reflect the carbon-neutral demands of legislation passed in Washington, California Nevada, New Mexico and the Canadian province of British Columbia would require upgrades in battery technology that would cost an estimated $527 million per year, the agencies wrote.

If the dams were breached, only the earthen portions below the water level would be removed. The concrete structures above the water would remain, but the Snake River and the fish that swim there would flow free. Congress would have to make the final call, but pressure to breach the dams has been building.

U.S. District Judge James Redden, who presided over the case until he retired and Judge Simon stepped in, has said publically that the Snake River dams should be removed. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee commissioned a study of Washingtonians’ views on dam removal, which included a series of raucous public hearings. That report is due out in March.

And Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told Inslee she supports removing the dams. In a letter, she called that action “the most certain and robust solution to Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery."

The agencies will hold six public comment hearings in March. They will issue a final impact statement in July, followed by a record of decision in September. Whether the plan goes far enough to protect the species that are the cornerstone of the region’s aquatic ecosystems could end up before Judge Simon again.

Meg Townsend, endangered species attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said it falls woefully short of Simon’s order.

“Instead of taking the one step identified by scientists as absolutely crucial for salmon recovery, these agencies failed our region yet again,” said. “The science shows that pulling out the four lower Snake River dams is the only way to save Columbia River salmon and the Southern Resident orcas that depend on them.”

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