News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Dam-breaching must be on the table in power discussions

Governor Brown’s letter to Washington Governor Jay Inslee calls for “facilitating thoughtful collaborations” to “help minimize and mitigate for potential harm to other vital sectors” including reliable power systems, continued water supplies for agriculture, and efficient and affordable ways to get commodities to market.

This is hardly a radical idea.

Every time someone of influence begins a discussion of the Columbia/Snake River dams and their adverse effects to salmon and steelhead, vested interests clamor that dam-breaching is too expensive for the Northwest to even talk about. But breaching the Snake River dams has been shown over and over in multiple studies over many years to be the most effective way to enhance salmon and steelhead survival in the Columbia River, and must be on the table in any serious discussion of river and hydropower operations.

The true costs of hydro operations and the Snake River dams are rarely mentioned. Taxpayers have already invested upwards of $17 billion into fish passage and other restoration efforts and 17 populations of salmon and steelhead continue to decline toward extinction. Small western communities, commercial fishermen, outfitter/guides and other businesses dependent on fish-related tourism have for years been paying the price that offsets our cheap electricity and the subsidized shipping of products down the river. Even here in Sisters, far from the dams, we have guides and other businesses at risk if salmon and steelhead are lost to extinction.

It is true that the electrical production of the four dams is 1,000 annual average megawatts/power for 800,000 homes. However, placing this in context of the overall power production in the Northwest paints a much different picture of possibilities. In fact, the Snake River dams provide less than 13 percent of all of BPA’s production, at best. This amount of power could be replaced with new renewable sources. Or it could be replaced by a portion of the nearly half of all BPA production that is surplus to Northwest needs and sold on the open market.

A number of studies support Governor Brown’s assertion that breaching will “address both the orca and the salmon dilemma,” the most recent being Southern Resident Killer Whales and Columbia/Snake River Chinook: A Review of the Available Scientific Evidence by David Bain, et al (February, 2020).

Bain’s review concludes that the best available science indicates that the whales are heavily reliant on the Columbia/Snake spring chinook.

The southern Puget Sound orcas were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005 when the population numbered 88 individuals.

After 53 deaths and only a few successful births, the population has decreased to 72 individuals, primarily because of starvation.

Finally, breaching opponents often claim that current juvenile fish passage survival through the Snake River dams reaches an astounding 96 percent.

This is simply incorrect.

Direct juvenile fish mortality is cumulative, each of the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake resulting in approximately 12-15 percent loss of the fish that pass through them.

There is also indirect or delayed mortality caused by injuries and stress from long residence time in the warm backwater reservoirs.

In 2018 NOAA Fisheries estimated direct mortality to juvenile chinook traveling from Lewiston to below Bonneville Dam at 72 percent.

Adding the additional loss from delayed mortality gives survival rates of 4 to 11 percent.

Madness is often defined as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome. This is exactly the story of decades of failed fish passage planning and recovery efforts. It is past time for the bold leadership displayed here by governors Brown and Inslee, and Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. If orca whales, our iconic salmon and steelhead, and the industries and communities that depend on them are to survive, any serious discussion of fish recovery and Columbia/Snake River dams must encompass all aspects, all costs, and all alternatives, including breaching the Snake River dams.


Reader Comments(0)