RICHLAND — A federal environmental study four years in the making rejects calls to breach the four lower Snake River dams.
Instead, it recommends spilling more water over dams in the Columbia River hydrosystem, which includes Snake River dams, in the spring to help juvenile fish heading downstream.
Federal agencies that prepared the report — the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration — plan to issue a decision in September based on the recommendations in the report.
The recommendation in the final Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement was changed little from the one outlined in the initial draft of the report released four months earlier.
The study was ordered by U.S. Judge Michael Simon in Portland over concerns that not enough was being done to protect endangered or threatened fish species in the 14-dam Columbia River hydrosystem.
The last comprehensive study was issued in 1995, and the study released Friday considers new information and changed conditions in the river system and those who rely on it.
Breaking news & more
Sign up for one of our many newsletters to be the first to know when big news breaks
“This document evaluates the necessary balance between responsible environmental stewardship and the multiple uses of the Columbia River System,” said Lorri Gray, Reclamation regional director.
It considered not only benefits and risks to juvenile and adult endangered and threatened fish, but also the social and economic effects of changes to the system, including taking out the four lower Snake River dams.
Impacts to flood risk management, water for irrigation, shipping of agriculture products and other goods, hydropower generation and recreation were weighed.
Environmentalists pan study
The final study was condemned by environmental groups and fishing interests who do not believe it does enough to protect chinook and other salmon and steelhead.
“The Trump administration’s latest plan is as likely to save endangered salmon or orcas from extinction as a glass of water is to stop a housefire,” said Giulia Good Stefani, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Breaching the lower Snake River dams has been discussed for decades, but the decline of the southern resident killer whales in the Puget Sound to only 72 orcas has renewed calls for removing the dams.
Orcas feed primarily on chinook, including chinook from the Columbia River system for part of the year.
Large spring chinook that weighed more than 100 pounds were once the primary prey of the Southern Resident orcas, but they have largely disappeared, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. It blames the lower Snake River dams and others from blocking access to high-quality habitat for spring chinook in Idaho.
Justin Hayes, executive director for the Idaho Conservation League, said the group was disappointed, but unsurprised by a fish recovery plan that would fail to recover Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead.
“The federal plan totally and completely fails Idaho and isn’t good enough for the many guides, outfitters, river businesses and communities in Idaho that depend on healthy runs of fish,” Hayes said. “It’s clear that the federal agencies are incapable of finding a solution that works for all stakeholders in the Northwest.”
The Eastern Washington Snake River dams that were considered for breaching or removal in the study include the Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco upriver to Lower Granite Dam north of Pomeroy.
Support for dams
Eastern Washington interests have fought attempts to breach the lower Snake River dams, saying social and economic consequences would be dire.
“Our constituents understand the important role the Federal Columbia River Power System plays for our way-of-life,” said three Washington state Republican representatives with districts along the Columbia and Snake rivers, Reps. Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler.
“For the past several years, scientists and engineers have studied the impacts of federally owned and operated dams on our economy, environment and protected species and came to the conclusion many of us recognize — the benefits of the dams along the mighty Columbia and Snake Rivers are far too precious for our region to go without,” they said.
Without the lower Snake River dams providing an affordable and dependable source of energy, the Northwest would be more susceptible to energy shortages and regional blackouts, says Northwest RiverPartners, a nonprofit group representing utilities, farmers, ports and businesses that rely on the system of dams for electricity and river navigation.
If the hydropower from the four Snake River dams needed to be replaced with other renewable energy sources backed up with battery storage, the cost would approach $800 million per year, said Northwest RiverPartners.
It put the cost to Northwest residents and businesses at a 25% increase in electricity bills.
“Exorbitant electricity bills would create economic chaos at a time when we are already reeling from a global pandemic, a homelessness crisis and an affordable housing shortage,” Northwest RiverPartners said.
The final study adopts an operation that invests millions of dollar annually to test whether increasing the water spilled over dams would help juvenile salmon move past dams or threaten them by increasing dissolved gasses in the water to levels that are deadly to them.
The new operation would incorporate higher spills that ever before as part of the Flexible Spill Agreement arrived at by Northwest states and many tribal nations in 2018 and put into action in 2019, Northwest RiverPartners said.
Water that is spilled over dams cannot be used for hydropower generation.
The final study also calls for investment in habitat restoration to help threatened and endangered fish.
The release of the final environmental study coincided with the release on Friday of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s biological opinion, or bi-op, on the 14 dams of the Columbia River System.
It concluded that the recommendation in the study is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of endangered salmon, steelhead or orcas.
Northwest RiverPartners says solutions are needed to save salmon, but that salmon are declining worldwide.
The bi-op looked at ocean warming and acidification due to climate change as a significant and growing threat to salmon populations.
Supporters of keeping the lower Snake River dams say that if they are removed the region’s carbon footprint would be increased, as goods now barged on the river would be moved by train and truck. Hydropower also provides clean energy for the region.
Northwest RiverPartners said it hoped that the new environmental study would bring closure to the issue of breaching lower Snake River dams and a firmer conviction in the role of Northwest hydropower as the most affordable carbon-free, renewable energy in the nation.
The federal agencies conducting the study listened to diverse interest across the Pacific Northwest, said BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer.
Nearly 59,000 comments were submitted on the draft study and over three years the federal agencies conducting the study collaborated with more than 30 tribes, state, federal and county agencies.
The recommendation in the final study result in benefits to fish species listed in the Endangered Species Act, while providing reliable flood risk management, water for irrigation and industry use, flexibility in hydropower generation and minimizing effects to people and the environment, BPA said.
However, a broad coalition of environmental groups is predicting that if the study’s recommendation is adopted, the issue will end up back in federal court because the recommendation does not do enough to prevent salmon extinction on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Five previous plans have been ruled insufficient for salmon recovery, according to a statement from groups that included the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers, the Idaho Conservation League, the National Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice.