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Impact statement on Snake and Columbia dams to usher in the next chapter of how to save fish

LEWISTON – A significant step in the long debate over how best to save and recover Snake River salmon and steelhead populations will begin to play out in the near future.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are set to release their draft environmental impact statement looking at the operation of 14 federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and how they impact threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs.

The document will examine not only biological issues related to fish survival but also social and economic issues such as the benefits provided by the hydropower system and the costs that would be incurred if one or more Snake River dams were to be breached. It is expected to include a preferred alternative stating the actions the government intends to pursue to balance the needs of fish with the hydropower system.

Dams on the lower Snake River have been a central point of contention in the efforts to improve salmon and steelhead runs for three decades. The dams create slackwater reservoirs where predators that feed on juvenile fish thrive. They also pose an obstacle that the young fish must negotiate on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. Studies have linked dam passage as a source of direct and delayed mortality for the young fish.

The dams make it possible for farmers in the region to cheaply and efficiently ship crops to places like the port of Portland and eventually to overseas markets. In addition, the dams produce about 4 to 5 percent of the hydropower used across the Northwest.

Many salmon and steelhead advocates have long called for the lower Snake River dams to be breached. They argue doing so will relieve a significant source of mortality and, when combined with other actions, help recover the species that are listed as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s been about 20 years since the federal government last took such an in-depth look at these issues. In 1999, the agencies released a draft of the Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report/Environmental Impact Statement, which was finalized in 2002. That process also examined breaching but ultimately chose an alternative known as Major System Improvements and Adaptive Management. It called for leaving the dams in place and instead embarking on an effort to implement juvenile fish passage improvements at the dams through options like spillway weirs, screens and fish bypass systems.

Much has changed in the intervening two decades that could play out in the draft Columbia River Systems Operation Review Environmental Impact Study expected to be released by the end of this month. The 2002 study focused on the Snake River dams. That differs from what is happening now. In 2016, Judge Michael Simon, of Portland, ordered the federal government to subject the entire Columbia River Hydropower Systems to the National Environmental Policy Act process.

“The analysis we are conducting is on par with the 2002 analysis but on a much bigger scale,” said Matt Rabe, a spokesman for the Corps at Portland. “What that means is the study area in 2002 was focused on the lower Snake River, and the study today stretches from Astoria, Oregon, to Libby, Montana. We are looking at all those same factors, all those same socioeconomic impacts, and dam breaching is one of things we are looking at.”

In 2002, federal officials said removing one or more of the Snake River dams would produce the best chances for Snake River spring and summer chinook, fall chinook, steelhead and sockeye to meet survival and recovery standards. That result was especially apparent in the Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses – one of two lenses through which the agencies and the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated fish response to various actions. Its findings hinged largely on the degree to which delayed mortality of the fish is caused by hydrosystem passage.

The document also said breaching would provide only modest increases in survival over less dramatic and less costly actions, such as improvements at the dams. That conclusion was based on analysis under the other lens – the Cumulative Risk Initiative, which was much less scientifically robust. The PATH and CRI models have been retired, and the agencies will use other analytic tools to estimate how its preferred alternative could affect fish runs.

Snake River salmon and steelhead have continued to struggle under the chosen alternative. Their numbers have occasionally spiked but have not hit prescribed targets of 2 to 6 percent smolt-to-adult survival rates with a 4 percent average widely accepted as they standard required for fish runs to both survive and grow. In the past five years, fish numbers have nose-dived because of harsh ocean conditions and continued impacts from the dams.

Even though federal officials said breaching Snake River dams was a more robust action, they determined breaching was not needed, would result in the loss of hydropower generation at Snake River dams, the loss of barge and tug transportation on the Snake River, the loss of irrigation to a small number of farms near the Tri-Cities in Washington, a short-term increase in sediment and degradation of water quality, and other major economic effects.

The 2002 document said it would cost $251 million to $291 million to replace hydropower produced at Snake River dams and raise residential power bills by $1.20 to $6.50 per month. The agencies identified natural gas plants as the mostly likely source of replacement power and said going that route would increase air pollution by 4 million tons per year. It also noted renewable sources could replace power produced at the dams but only with “significant government intervention, including subsidies, and implementation long before the dams were breached.”

If dams were breached, the loss of barge transportation would be made up by increased rail and highway shipping, according to the 2002 document. It said the cost to move commodities without Snake River dams would rise by about 5 percent and cost about $38 million per year. The switch to more rail transportation would require investments of about $50 million to $89 million to the current rail system and $84 million to $101 million would need to be invested in highways. Another $60 million to $352 million would need to be spent on upgrading grain storage facilities.

The report indicated short-term jobs would be created by work related to removing the dams and constructing replacement power plants and transportation infrastructure and that fishing and tourism jobs would also rise. But the report said there would be a long-term loss of 1,372 jobs in the Snake River region and nearly 2,290 in the Pacific Northwest.

What has changed

Northwest energy markets have changed dramatically in the past two decades. The Bonneville Power Administration once counted on selling its surplus electricity produced at dams to places like California for a profit, helping keep its own rates low. But with prices and demand both down because of the proliferation of solar, wind and conservation, Bonneville often has been forced to sell its surplus electricity at a loss. It also had to raise the rates it charges regional customers by about 30 percent in the past decade. While the region and entire West Coast added a number of wind and solar plants and are expected to add more, coal plants are being retired in an effort to curb carbon emissions, which will reduce power supplies.

Some have said power produced at the Snake River dams is not needed or that it could be easily replaced with more renewable sources. A study by the Northwest Energy Coalition found that power produced at the dams could be replaced with conservation, better daily power management and new sources like solar, plus occasional purchases from the grid. It would cost about $340 million a year when the avoided costs of maintaining the dams are added in, which the study’s authors calculated would add about $1 to monthly power bills.

Northwest River Partners commissioned a review of the Northwest Energy Coalition’s study that said the group underestimated the loss of coal generation and the cost of new generation and transmission infrastructure that would be needed to replace power produced at Snake River dams. The River Partners work indicated it would cost $860 million a year.

The volume of cargo shipped on the lower Snake River has declined in the last 20 years. Although the river transportation system remains critical to the shipment of grain, container shipping has nearly disappeared.

A study commissioned by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association said replacing river-borne transportation would increase commodity transportation costs by $2.3 billion over the next three decades and could drive some farmers out of business if federal agriculture subsidies are not increased. Governments would need to invest $1.6 billion in rail and highway infrastructure to compensate for river transportation made obsolete by breaching, according to the report. It also said breaching would raise transportation and storage costs incurred by farmers by 50 to 100 percent and significantly eat into their profit margins. If federal crop subsidies aren’t increased by $18.9 million to $38.9 million, the report says as many as 1,100 farms could be forced into bankruptcy.

A 2015 study conducted by Anthony M. Jones of the Boise economic consulting firm Rocky Mountain Econometrics found that farmers who use the river instead of rail save about 2.4 cents per ton, or about $7.6 million annually. But he said the Army Corps of Engineers spends $17.8 million per year to maintain the river transportation system and hundreds of millions each year to mitigate the harm dams cause to fish. He calculated that the dams provide a benefit of 21 cents for every dollar the Corps spends.


In 2002, the fate of Southern Resident killer whales had not been linked to Snake and Columbia river salmon and steelhead. Today they are, but the degree to which the whales depend on chinook salmon from the two rivers is in dispute. Officials at NOAA Fisheries say the whales depend on chinook from rivers up and down the West Coast, but place more importance on rivers that empty into the Salish Sea and Puget Sound than on the Snake and Columbia. Other researchers claim Columbia River spring and summer chinook are a key food source at a critical time of the year and that Snake River dam removal would boost the orca prey base. The interjection of orcas into the discussion has shifted the politics of the debate. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has pushed to link orca recovery with Snake and Columbia river chinook recovery, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently said breaching can help the whales and the fish and called for a dialogue on the subject.

“I think it’s acknowledged across the board, Republicans and Democrats, that orca fundamentally lack sufficient prey to survive and reproduce,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. “In addition to being symptomatic of the problems we have in the Northwest, it has also brought in a whole new set of folks, both regionally and nationally, who suddenly have a lot more interest in salmon recovery efforts.”


Scientific evidence and public acceptance of climate change has grown in the last two decades. Many researchers believe global warming is likely to produce more frequent occurrence of the kind of ocean conditions that are bad for Columbia and Snake river salmon and steelhead. Many say to counter that, more needs to be done to help the fish in fresh water.


In recent years, the amount of water spilled at Snake and Columbia river dams has risen based on the idea that doing so decreases water travel time and allows more fish to pass over spillways instead of going through turbines and fish bypass systems at the dams. Spill is seen as one way to increase juvenile survival, but it also decreases the amount of power that can be generated at the dams.

Science and delayed mortality

The information gathered about the effects dams have on fish and how actions like spill and breaching can change that have advanced a great deal.

“The analyses we are doing now are much more sophisticated. We have another 30 years of data,” Michele DeHart of the Fish Passage Center at Portland said.

What to look for

What will the goal of the document be? The work could aim to cross the lowest bar required, which is to simply show the federal hydropower system doesn’t increase the risk of extinction for the fish. Known as jeopardy, that is what the Endangered Species Ask requires.

“The EIS scope and purpose is something the agencies need to define, and sort of the smallest scope it could have would be looking at actions that would comply with the Endangered Species Act, but that is not the only law that is relevant here and it’s not a ceiling or a cap,” said Todd True, a lead attorney for EarthJustice at Seattle, who has filed several successful lawsuits over the government’s plans to help the fish. “The Northwest Power act with its goal of restoring abundant salmon is relevant, and sort of the general goals of the region are relevant to have salmon at fishable numbers. So to the extent the EIS only focuses on avoiding extinction, I think it will be a big missed opportunity.”

Latent mortality

The way in which the new document addresses dam-related delayed mortality will be key to its conclusions. Will federal officials accept the idea that significant numbers of juvenile salmon and steelhead die in the estuary and ocean because of injury and stress related to dam passage? Or will they latch onto another theory such as the one that posits delayed mortality is a manifestation of fish bypass systems at the dams attracting smaller fish, and those fish, because of their smaller size, are prone to not surviving regardless of their dam passage experience?

Do Snake River dams pay for themselves?

Will the document include a cost-benefit analysis of the lower Snake River dams? Such a document would look at the full accounting of the cost of maintaining the dams, including future upgrades and maintenance for elements such as hydroelectrical turbines, fish bypass and mitigation measures, and shipping channel dredging and weigh it against the public benefits provided by the dams such as low-carbon hydropower generation and efficient transportation of cargo.

The previous review said the dams cost about $37 million a year to maintain. But Jim Waddell, a former civilian manager of the Corps’ Walla Walla district, has said that analysis was incomplete and contained numerous errors. He estimated the cost at $197 million annually.

“It was even reasonably clear if one bothered to read the EIS in 2002 there were more questions in there than answers supporting the dams,” Waddell said. “It will be curious what they say. I expect them to say replacement power is really expensive when we are saying these days it doesn’t look like you have to really replace the power because of the surpluses we are running.”

In July, the economic consulting firm ECONorthwest released a controversial study that said the benefits of breaching the dams outweigh the costs by $8.6 billion. It relied heavily on the value people place on knowing salmon and steelhead would be recovered and said regional ratepayers would be willing to spend as much as an additional $40 a year in electricity costs to save the fish. It acknowledged a steep cost because of the loss of barge transportation, an increase in traffic accidents and fossil fuel emissions, but said the government spends more to maintain the dams than the economic benefits they provide.

How will the document assess the value of power produced at Snake River dams and the cost of replacing it if breaching were to occur? Some have said power produced at the Snake River dams in particular is not needed or that it could be easily replaced with more renewable sources. But the agencies could also be looking at projections of a coming shortage of power related to retiring coal plants. Kurt Miller of the Northwest River Partners said he will look for how the agencies analyze the importance of hydropower from Snake River dams and the cost to replace it if dams were breached.

“I’ve been told they will have included in there the kind of economic costs of replacement energy given this new supply-demand balance the region will be facing, and I expect that to be sizable,” Miller said.

He is also interested in the degree to which the agencies value power from the dams for its ability to balance power demands from fluctuating sources like wind and solar.

“We think the dams are a really important part of the regional clean energy future in the long term, because of their ability to help add new renewables to the grid and balance those in a safe manner and because the states are going to more and more carbon-free standards or low-carbon standards. We fully anticipate the preferred alternative will recognize the importance of the lower Snake River dams in the clean energy future.”

Snake River dam removal effectiveness

The past report showed breaching would be best for the fish but not much better than less costly measures. Is that still the case?

Other considerations

How will the new draft address the threats of climate change, the connection between Puget Sound orcas and Snake and Columbia river chinook, will it place a public value on saving salmon, how much blame on low salmon survival rates will be placed on predators?

Source: The Spokesman review

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