Why Remove The 4 Lower Snake River Dams?

dam.large.ppThe Northwest would not be what it is today without hydroelectricity from the region’s dams. Yet one simple fact remains: not all dams are created equal. Below is a list of commonly asked questions about Columbia and Snake River salmon and the four lower Snake River dams with answers from regional stakeholders.

Also check out the Myths & Facts page.

1. Why do scientists support partial removal of the 4 lower Snake River dams?

2. How much energy do these four dams produce? How much will it cost to replace that power?

3. Can we replace the dams’ power with clean energy?

4. Why should U.S. taxpayers be concerned with salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake River basin?

5. How does global warming affect Columbia-Snake River salmon and steelhead survival?

6. Do these dams provide any flood control?

7. What impact does fishing have on Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead survival?

8. If the dams are removed, how will farmers who use these dams’ reservoirs to ship in crops in barges deliver their products to market?

9. How does lower Snake River dam removal affect tribal treaty fishing rights?

10. Why have the federal government’s salmon recovery efforts failed, despite more than $8 billion spent?

11. What can Congress do to solve this problem and restore salmon and steelhead to abundance?

1. Why do scientists support salmon and steelhead restoration by removing the 4 lower Snake River dams?

Fishery scientists have monitored Snake River wild salmon population declines since the 1950s. They have intensively studied the plight of the wild salmon in the last several decades using advanced tagging methods and modeling. The role that dams and reservoirs, habitat, hatcheries, harvest, predators and the ocean play in salmon survival is well understood.

In order to restore Snake River salmon populations to sustainable numbers, scientists have determined that they must consistently return adults to the uppermost Snake River dam, Lower Granite, at a minimum rate of 2% to 6%. Since 1975 when the eight dams (four on the lower Columbia River and four on the lower Snake River) were completed, return rates have only rarely exceeded the 2 percent survival minimum. From 1994 to 2004, they ranged from 0.35 to 2.5 percent, exceeding 2 percent in just a single year.

An extensive modeling effort completed in 2000 analyzed of the causes of mortality for Snake River salmon. The model demonstrated that the four lower Snake River dams were the most significant factor preventing recovery. The cumulative effect of eight dams on the lower Columbia and lower Snake Rivers is too much for salmon survival and if the four dams on the lower Snake were removed (cutting the total number of dams Snake River stocks face in half), these salmon can rebound to healthy levels.

More recent studies also show that populations of other Columbia Basin salmon that migrate through four or less dams and reservoirs, such as those from the Yakima and John Day rivers are performing significantly better than those from the Snake river. Those populations, like the Snake, also encounter mortality as a result of habitat destruction, harvest, hatcheries, predators and ocean conditions, but they are not imperiled. The difference lies in the number of mainstem dams they encounter. A key benefit for Snake River populations is the amount of high quality habitat they have that is not found in the other Columbia basins.

As a result of this extensive research, hundreds of federal, state, tribal and independent scientists have concluded that removing the four lower Snake River dams is the best and perhaps only means to protect these fish from extinction and recover healthy populations.

2. How much energy do these four dams produce? How much will it cost to replace that power?

Together, the four Lower Snake River dams have a “nameplate” (maximum) generating capacity of 3,000 megawatts. Because these dams can’t provide flood control and have virtually no storage capacity, they can reach that maximum for just a few days in any year (during a rapid spring snowmelt for example). Their actual yearly output is just over 1,000 average megawatts, or about what a city of size of Seattle or Milwaukee or Denver or Louisville uses. In winter and late summer, when electricity is most needed and most valuable, these four dams are able to generate less than half that average because there is very little water available to spin turbines. Initial studies conclude that the economic benefits of salmon and steelhead recovery exceed the costs to replace the dams’ seasonally-limited power. Those benefits include increased commercial fishing, a resurgence of recreational jobs and businesses, and a substantial reduction in the expensive, wasteful (and largely ineffective) salmon programs now in place.

Replacing the dams’ power with energy efficiency (conservation programs) and truly clean, salmon-safe, renewable energy is estimated to cost between $80 million and $180 million a year – just 2-4 percent of Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA) $4 billion annual budget. This would have a minimal impact on BPA - the agency responsible for selling power from the Columbia Basin federal dams.

Further, Northwest consumers should not bear even this minimal expense alone. All residents of the Northwest and nation will share the economic benefits of dam removal. Restoring this national treasure and valuable natural resource is the joint responsibility of all Americans. Federal taxpayers, through Congressional appropriations, should pay any additional energy costs associated with dam removal.

3. Can we replace the dams’ power with clean energy?

The short answer is “YES!” In the Northwest right now, generating “new energy” through investments in conservation is cheaper than generating new energy from coal or other fossil fuels. Here’s how: The low-cost estimate ($80 million, see Question 2 above) for replacing the four lower Snake River dams’ power is based on creating 90 percent of this new energy through investments in conservation (efficiency) and 10 percent from new, truly clean, salmon-safe renewable energy like wind or biomass. This is an attainable, cost-effective goal. Further, cost-effective investments in conservation (efficiencies) that can generate an additional 850 average megawatts (enough for a city like Portland OR) are also clearly achievable.

The Pacific Northwest’s official power planning agency, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, recently prescribed making investments in conservation in order to generate 2,500 average megawatts (more than twice what the 4 lower Snake River dams produce) of “new” energy to help meet rising power needs, and could have called for hundreds more. By investing money to help inefficient processes or machines become more efficient and use less energy, “new” energy becomes available that can then be used by others.

The higher power replacement cost estimates are based on greater percentages of renewable energy. When it comes to gauging the potential for new sources of truly clean, renewable energy, study after study finds that the region -- especially if one includes Wyoming and Montana -- contains tens of thousands of megawatts of clean wind power at fairly low cost. Substantial amounts of relatively inexpensive geothermal power are also available in Idaho, Utah and most likely in southern Oregon. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popular and successful “Million Solar Roofs” program could be instituted in the Pacific Northwest as well.

As noted in Question #2, Congress should provide much, if not all, of the funding needed to keep energy costs affordable for Northwest consumers.


4. Why should U.S. taxpayers be concerned with salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake River basin?

Over the last two decades, federal agencies have spent more than $8 billion in failed attempts to restore Columbia and Snake River salmon. Each year more than $550 million in funding, more than twice that of even Everglades restoration, goes to NOAA Fisheries, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies for this effort. This money has been spent on ridiculous schemes such as loading salmon into trucks and driving them around the dams, all the while ignoring cost-effective solutions for recovery like partial removal of the lower Snake River dams.

In 2002, the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report titled, “Columbia River Basin Salmon and Steelhead: Federal Agencies' Recovery Responsibilities, Expenditures and Actions” that stated there is no conclusive evidence that the last two decades of federal salmon recovery actions have succeeded in helping to restore these fish.

If we stay on the current path, taxpayers will not only continue to foot the bill for costly salmon recovery but will shoulder the massive cost of extinction. Columbia and Snake River salmon are protected under treaties with the Columbia Basin treaty tribes and Canada. Taxpayers could be liable for billions to tens of billions of dollars in compensation payments to treaty tribes and Canada if the fish go extinct.

The current recovery plan is too expensive and promises not fish recovery, but decades more in multi-billion dollar spending. If we continue with the status quo, salmon will be driven to extinction and U.S. taxpayers will be left with an enormous price tag. Congress can make lower Snake River dam removal the cornerstone of a recovery plan that begins to reign in the federal agencies’ spending cycle that is ineffective and out of control.

5. How does global warming affect Columbia-Snake River salmon and steelhead survival? Global warming creates new challenges for recovering salmon and steelhead, and makes the impacts from the lower Snake River dams and their slackwater reservoirs even worse. However, there’s absolutely no conflict between fighting global warming and recovering threatened and endangered Northwest salmon and steelhead stocks. It is a false choice. Our communities and future generations need and deserve both. The idea that the relatively small amount of hydropower now produced at the lower Snake River dams must be replaced with power from carbon-emitting fossil-fueled sources is a myth perpetrated by special interests opposed to salmon recovery – many of whom have spent years denying power production’s role in creating climate change. As the answers to Questions 3 & 6 (above) indicate, the Northwest is blessed with an abundance of cost-competitive clean energy answers to our power needs.

Already we see the effects of climate change reducing the mountain snowpack on which Northwest hydropower production depends. As global warming worsens, the lower Snake Dams will become progressively less reliable as an energy source – especially in summer. The shallow, slow-running river will become even warmer, further threatening salmon survival throughout the region. Scientists predict that the salmon and steelhead of the Snake River that are born at high altitudes where cooler temperatures will persist have the best chance of surviving the current warming trend. Removing the four lower Snake River dams and restoring a free-flowing river will reduce the impacts of global warming on salmon and steelhead and help ensure a healthy, sustainable future for wild pacific salmon and the communities that depend upon them.

The bottom line: the limited power produced by the four lower Snake River dams can be replaced without adding to our climate pollution, at little or no cost to consumers, and with great benefits to endangered salmon and the communities, businesses, and cultures that rely upon them. More on Climate Change.

6. Do these dams provide any flood control?

No. In fact, they are creating a flood risk. They are “run-of-river dams,” which means they don’t store water. Water levels in the reservoirs can only be increased a few feet.

A growing flood threat exists to the cities of Clarkston and Lewiston because of the four lower Snake River dams. Naturally occurring sediment coming down the Snake River, is piling up behind Lower Granite dam and raising the level of the river. Each year, 3 million cubic yards of sediment enters the reservoir, raising the water level and increasing risk of flood. Lower Granite is now 55 percent full of sediment and the river level has now risen higher than downtown!

The Corps of Engineers is studying options to address this serious problem, including raising the series of levees that block the towns from the river. The only option the Corps is not studying is removal of the four dams. Raising levees, dredging, and other measures will cost millions of dollars over the long term and pose threats to fish, wildlife and recreation opportunities. Lewiston community leaders are opposed to raising levees, which will cut the town off further from it’s rivers and disrupt popular bike path and walking paths. The Corps admits that the volume of sediment is too vast for dredging to solve the problem.

Only one solution will really solve the flood risk issue: removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.

7. What impact does fishing have on Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead survival?

Wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers are an important part of the Pacific Northwest’s history and heritage, and economy and culture. People have been fishing for, sustained by, and enjoying salmon for centuries. The people of the Northwest and Nation deserve restored wild salmon to levels that also restore recreational, commercial, and tribal fisheries. As habitat destruction and dam construction has increased in the Columbia Basin, populations have declined and fishing opportunities been severely restricted.

A hundred years ago, fishing impacts were significant. Prior to the dam building era that began in the early 1900s, salmon were commercially caught at high rates in the Columbia River. If allowed to continue, this would have eventually impacted Snake River populations as well, but fishing was reduced and the resilient salmon rebounded quickly.

As the Columbia and Snake Rivers were populated with dams and other forms of habitat destruction, opportunities to fish have been severely reduced. Dams – blocking the river’s flow and creating large stagnant reservoirs have especially impacted the salmon’s ability to flourish.

Fishing is of course recognized as a cause of mortality for Snake River salmon and steelhead but since listing during the 1990s under the Endangered Species Act the federal government has tightly controlled harvest. Today, dams play a far greater role killing salmon than fishermen. The dams, for example, kill between 40 and 92 percent of the migrating Snake River salmon and steelhead. Fishing takes between 0 to 10 percent of any given run. Snake River fall Chinook is the one exception. It is caught in the ocean and the lower Columbia River where it mixes with other abundant populations found on the lower Columbia River.

Due to these minimal overall impacts, scientists have determined that totally eliminating fishing for the renowned Snake River spring/summer chinook and steelhead in particular would provide very little to no benefits and fail to recover these endangered populations. And it would devastate fishing communities from California to Alaska and into Idaho. Lower Snake River dam removal is the surest way to recover all of these salmon and steelhead species so all anglers can again have an opportunity to fish. Download the PDF on fishing and salmon numbers.

8. If the dams are removed, how will farmers who use these dams’ reservoirs to ship in crops in barges deliver their products to market?

Currently, wheat, barley and other goods are barged down river from Lewiston, ID and a couple other ports on the lower Snake River. Fewer goods, mostly fertilizer and fuel, travel upriver. Wheat, barley and other crops are destined for Portland, OR and then exported overseas. Prior to 1975, when the last of the four dams was built, goods traveled by railroad to Pasco, WA for barge loading or were railed and trucked to the West Coast.

Removal of the lower Snake dams will reduce the river barge corridor by 140 miles. Crops and other products will be railed and trucked to Pasco, WA where they can be loaded onto barges, or continue to Portland by rail.

Investments in a modern rail system and improved highways is not only affordable, it will provide far more benefits to the region’s farmers, businesses and communities that the lower Snake River barge system does. During the past few decades Inland Northwest local railroads—called short lines—have fallen into disrepair, with serious economic consequences for struggling farm communities, local business owners and manufacturers. Not all crops can travel by barge, and the barge system can’t send goods to important markets in the Puget Sound, or north, south or points farther east—it only goes between Portland and Lewiston Idaho. A dam removal plan can—and must—include funds for a modern transportation system that will provide farmers better access to more diverse markets, as well as benefit many other businesses from Spokane to rural communities on eastern Washington’s Palouse. For more information: http://www.workingsnakeriver.org

9. How does lower Snake River dam removal affect tribal treaty fishing rights?

In 1855, Natives Peoples of the Northwest signed a treaty with the United States government that ceded most of their lands - lands which currently make up much of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon - in return for the right to have and to fish for salmon and steelhead in their usual and accustomed places. The salmon were, and continue to be, so important to these peoples that their governments were willing to give up the rights they had to large tracks of land in order to ensure that salmon graced the waters of this region forever. The United States’ obligation was simply to ensure that it did not do anything to cause the decline of these fish or to stop the tribal nations from fishing.

The United States has largely failed in its obligation. Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act and many more have already been lost from this planet, many of which were extremely important to tribal cultures. The federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest are a major factor in the decline of these fish and yet the federal government continues to minimize the harm caused by these dams.

While Snake River dam removal would not completely solve the tribal treaty right issues to date, this action would go a long way in helping to restore Snake River salmon to levels necessary to meeting treaty right obligations. Without this action, it is difficult to fathom the suite of actions that would indeed meet these same obligations.

10. Why have the federal government’s salmon recovery efforts failed, despite more than $8 billion spent?

The answer is simple: The federal government’s salmon plans have failed because they circumvented legal requirements and politicized science. The Endangered Species Act lays out certain basic principles and requirements to ensure that we do not inadvertently allow species to go extinct. Instead of following this species protection law, the federal government has ignored its requirements, reinterpreted them in inconsistent and dangerous ways, and attempted to rewrite them. In the latest plan, for example, the federal government treated dams as unchangeable parts of the environment, much like a mountain. A federal court called the plan “little more than a slight of hand” and stated that the “ESA requires a more realistic, common sense examination.”

Additionally, the federal government has ignored sound science. Tribal, state and federal fisheries biologists have all supported the removal of the four lower Snake River dams as a keystone action necessary for any valid salmon plan. To date, the federal government has ignored this scientific consensus due not to scientific principles, but rather due to political issues. Instead or providing more water, more spill over the dams for safe passage, and dam removal, the federal government has relived on old actions – like barging and trucking salmon around the dams and limiting the amount of water in the river – that science has shown over and over again simply do not work.

As a federal court found in 1994, the federal hydrosystem is calling out for a “complete overhaul” not just the tweaks and minor adjustments the federal government seem willing to provide. The issues on the Snake River are a major gushing wound that require serious attention, not a simple paper cut that a bandaid could handle.

11. What can Congress and the President do to solve this problem and restore salmon and steelhead to abundance?

Congress and the Obama Administration have an invaluable role to play – whether it’s passing needed legislation, providing vital funding for salmon restoration, or exercising its oversight responsibilities to ensure that recovery measures are truly working. What salmon and salmon-based communities need most is real leadership: Members of Congress and a President who will bring together stakeholders from across the Northwest and beyond to articulate and implement a shared vision that includes abundant salmon populations, thriving rural communities, and clean, affordable energy for the region. Right now, Members of Congress can help by introducing a bill authorizing the partial removal of the four lower Snake River dams, the replacement of the limited services the dams provide, and the protection of communities affected by that action. Americans are ready for effective solutions to one of the toughest natural resources challenges of our day. The Obama Administration along with the 111th Congress can help by fostering a forward-looking dialogue that will serve as the foundation for a durable strategy to bring wild salmon back to the Columbia-Snake Basin, and to keep communities healthy and whole.

Share This