By Jeremy P. Jacobs
August 11, 2020
The Trump administration has a new argument for opposing the breach of salmon-killing dams in the Pacific Northwest: climate change.
In a highly anticipated environmental analysis of the Columbia River's hydropower system, the administration justifies keeping the dams by arguing that taking their hydropower offline would require the region to turn to more carbon-intensive energy, such as gas or coal.
That switch, the agencies say, would make it harder to comply with states' efforts to fight climate change. Washington state's law, for example, requires 100% carbon-free power by 2045.
Taking out the dams would make those climate change-related goals "more difficult to achieve," they wrote.
Conservationists said the justification is galling coming from the Trump administration, which exited the Paris climate agreement, has undone numerous federal climate-related policies and is set this week to dismantle EPA regulations for limiting emissions of heat-trapping methane (see related story). The administration, they say, is pitting climate change against fish.
"It is one of their more cynical rationales," said Todd True of Earthjustice, who has repeatedly sued federal dam managers. He called the reasoning "shameless."
Scott Levy, director of the advocacy group bluefish.org, was equally blunt. He called it "egregious."
Columbia River salmon and steelhead runs were once among the most prolific in the world, returning 10 million to 16 million fish to the system yearly.
Those numbers began to plummet in the 1960s due to dam building, commercial harvesting and climate change.
In the decades since, conservationists have waged a litigious battle with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power produced at the dams.
Environmentalists have targeted four impoundments on the Lower Snake River in particular: Ice Harbor (completed in 1961), Lower Monumental (1969), Little Goose (1970) and Lower Granite (1975). Those dams were among the last built in the system and, conservationists argue, sealed salmon's fate.
With the addition of the four dams, salmon and steelhead must navigate eight dams on their migration from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. Most of the runs are now listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2016, a federal court struck down the management plan for the fifth time. Judge Michael Simon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon found "significant deficiencies" and raised questions about the effectiveness of an endangered species program that has cost nearly $17 billion.
"[T]he option of breaching, bypassing, or even removing a dam may be considered more financially prudent and environmentally effective than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on uncertain habitat restoration and other alternative actions," Simon wrote.
Simon ordered the agencies to consider breaching the four dams.
The resulting 8,000-page environmental impact statement, or EIS, points to the complicated and sometimes contradictory objectives placed on the agencies. The Lower Snake River dams provide some irrigation and recreation and produce power that Bonneville has maintained is important to grid reliability during peak times.
"Collaboration has been the cornerstone of this process," Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director Lorri Gray said when the EIS was released. "This document evaluates the necessary balance between responsible environmental stewardship and the multiple uses of the Columbia River System."
Breaching the four dams, the document stated, "would not meet the objective" to provide a reliable and economical power supply.
But it also acknowledged that continued discussion about the dams is necessary, as is coming up with a regional solution to the problems that is beyond their authority in the EIS.
Fully tackling all the issues, the agencies wrote in a summary, will "require additional regional actions to address other effects that are beyond the co-lead agencies' authorities" in the Columbia River system (E&E News PM, July 31).
Other analyses have taken issue with justifying the dams based on the electricity they produce, even if it is mostly carbon-free.
A comprehensive 2018 NW Energy Coalition study found that the approximately 1,000 megawatts of annual power production from the dams could be replaced by demand response and renewables at little to no cost to customers (Greenwire, Oct. 23, 2019).
"The evidence shows this is an eminently solvable problem," said Joseph Bogaard of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. "The thing we need to be doing is sitting down and developing that plan."
Earthjustice's True said the agencies' setting up a "supposed conflict" between the salmon, the endangered orcas that rely on them for food, and climate change is illustrative of the overall approach by the agencies.
"Part of the problem," he said, "is one of the features of this EIS is it doesn't try to solve problems; it just tries to perpetuate them."
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