A lengthy draft report released by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office earlier this month comparing the arguments for and against breaching four dams on the lower Snake River came as a judge ruled the federal government must protect Columbia basin salmon and steelhead from rising river temperatures.
The report, made possible by funds allocated in the Legislature’s two-year operating budget approved earlier this year, was the result of a stakeholder engagement process between those who have a connection to the river systems and those proposing their removal.
While it did not make recommendations for next steps, the report concludes that there are vastly differing opinions among stakeholders and communities regarding the impact of the four dams in question on salmon and orca, agriculture, energy, recreation and the regional economy and that greater understanding and dialogue will be needed to break the cycle of court battles and legal decisions that have arisen from their continued operation.
The report is open to public comment until Jan. 24 and will be discussed by a panel at three public workshops held this month in Clarkston, Vancouver and Pasco. More information is available online.
Islander Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said the Snake River — once home to an abundance of Chinook, coho, sockeye, steelhead and Pacific lamprey now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — is the largest salmon restoration opportunity anywhere in the west coast. He believes that removing the dams is the surest way to restore rock-bottom harvest levels, turning around years of decline for rural and tribal fishermen, as well as clearing the way for migrating Chinook, one of the most important food sources for the Southern Resident orca whales.
“We’ve lost the tremendous benefits that salmon and steelhead deliver to the people of the northwest and to the ecosystem and to Southern Resident orcas,” he said.
The report notes that historic salmon numbers dropped precipitously due to overfishing in the Columbia and Snake River system in the early nineteenth century and then far more so after the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the dams beginning in the 1950s, noting their intrusion on tribal nations and lands. Salmon returns to the Snake River have come in higher than historic lows in recent tallies, the report says, but those numbers are still lower than earlier increases, and a fraction of the wild abundance of fish that once crossed the Snake River.
Returning adult salmon and steelhead numbers in the Columbia River basin were some of the lowest on record last year — only 6,863 spring/summer Chinook were counted and nearly 11,000 steelhead, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council — far short of predictions while casting doubt over current forecasts.
“We’re talking about populations that are bumping along the bottom on the edge of extinction. That shouldn’t be acceptable to anybody in the region and the nation,” said Bogaard, adding that he believes now is the time to develop a plan with the policymakers, stakeholders and community leaders involved in the report to begin a transition that protects salmon, ensures a clean energy system and invests in vibrant fishing communities without leaving anyone behind.
“One of the things we’ve learned in natural resource debates is the longer you wait, the more expensive it is. There’s a lot at stake right now and we don’t have much time to waste,” he said. “There’s an urgency to act, to put that plan together, work with others in the region, and then work with political leaders to ensure it’s funded, and it’s got the appropriate authorization to move it forward.”
During most of the year, the energy produced by the four Lower Snake River dams — sold and marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration — acts as reserves rather than being used to meet demands from customers directly. The report highlights that the dams augment the Northwest power grid when other energy sources become unavailable, but also notes that the energy market has undergone radical change in recent years due to the growing availability of renewables and natural gas, followed by improvements in energy efficiency statewide that has resulted in an oversupply of cheap and available energy.
But the Snake River dams have their defenders. In a press release, Kurt Miller of the nonprofit Northwest RiverPartners, an organization that advocates for hydroelectricity, ports and business interests and provided input for the report during the stakeholder process, said the dams help guard against regional blackouts and spiking energy prices that harm lower-income people.
“Often, policy discussions like these can ignore the practical impacts on vulnerable communities and on critical infrastructure,” said Miller. “We were excited to be able to introduce these topics into the conversation.”
There are competing visions of the future of the Snake River among those for and against removal of the dams, as the report notes supporters of retaining them believe the river will be reduced to a muddy, turbid floodplain dominated by invasive species, and that the disbursement of sediment and contaminates now kept behind the dams will significantly alter water quality and render any benefit to salmon futile. Whether or not the dams stay in place for the foreseeable future, the Environmental Protection Agency will need to develop and issue a pollution plan to protect salmon from hot water in the Columbia and Snake rivers under a Ninth Circuit ruling that found the agency was not complying with the Clean Water Act.
The lawsuit, first sparked in 2015 by the deaths of 250,000 adult sockeye salmon after the Columbia and Snake rivers became too warm, comes amid concerns that a warming climate will heat up the slow-moving river system and the reservoirs behind the dams as the water absorbs more solar radiation from the sun, imperiling salmon as they make their way through.
The issue of warming in the rivers is not new. The stakeholder report notes that rising temperatures can lead to greater predation of salmon and cites a letter written last fall on behalf of nearly five dozen wildlife scientists by David Cannamela, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist, who believes that breaching the dams, combined with the Army Corps’ practice of releasing colder water from other reservoirs, “has enormous potential to alleviate the very serious problem of elevated summer temperatures in the lower Snake River, and increase the survival rate from out-migrating smolts to returning adults.”
Last summer, Save Our Wild Salmon — in partnership with the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United and Sierra Club — took weekly, up-to-date thermal readings in the reservoirs, watching for temperatures to exceed 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Any warmer than that and salmon and steelhead may begin to suffer harmful effects, from reproductive problems to exhaustion and death.
In a series of hot water reports, researchers found that by August, all eight reservoirs on the lower Snake and lower Columbia rivers had daily temperatures that peaked above the threshold considered safest for salmon and steelhead each day of the week.
“Scientists will tell you that if we don’t deal with temperature issues in lower Snake, we will lose the salmon in the river,” said Bogaard. “We need to figure out how we’re going to address these multiple challenges in a way that works for salmon in the region and [impacts] other people who have been affected by them.”
He extended his appreciation of Gov. Inslee’s leadership to lead and sponsor the conversation.
“This is a hard topic for this state and region, but we’ve got to have it,” said Bogaard.