By Jessica Pollard
Feb 22, 2020
PASCO, Wash. — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown shifted the political debate from cap and trade during the short-session in Salem to the waters of the Columbia River’s largest tributary — the Snake River — and the four lower dams on the Eastern Washington portion of it.
Brown on Feb. 11 wrote a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee expressing her support to remove the earthen portions from the four concrete lower Snake River dams.
She stated the science was clear — removal is the most probable answer to salmon and steelhead population recovery in the Columbia River Basin, which could aid orcas in their forage for fatty spring Chinook salmon off the mouth of the Columbia in late winter each year.
However, she added, “much must be done before this is accomplished in order to help minimize and mitigate for potential harm to other vital sectors.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1970s built the Lower Granite Dam, the Little Goose Dam, the Lower Monumental Dam and the Ice Harbor Dam east of Pasco where water discharges into the Columbia. The dams supply water to irrigate farmland, hydropower and transportation routes.
The Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Shoshone Bannock tribes all relied on fishing from the river, which was once a main contributor and contained millions of salmon each year, well before the construction of the dams.
Tribal salmon now are harvested per treaty rights at less than 1% of the levels they were before tribes made contact with white settlers, according to a report issued by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in 2014.
“Our diet still consists highly on salmon. It’s important we’re able to consume those foods,” said Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “We agree with a number of science reviews that there are issues around dams that could be resolved through fish passage and eventual dam removal.”
Sams said the Confederated Umatilla Tribes will release a policy statement in coming weeks as the fishing commission works to put its own new analysis of the lower Snake River together.
Cooperatives, such as Umatilla Electric in Hermiston and Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative in Baker City, purchase the majority of its power from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal hydropower agency. Ted Case, director of Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said the 1,000 average annual megawatts the lower Snake River dams produce can power a city the size of Seattle. He was shocked to hear Brown’s recent position in the lower Snake conversation.
‘We’ve had no consultation, there was no discussion about us,” he said. “It’s confounding.”
He and representatives from other electric cooperatives are worried about what dam removal would bring for rural Oregonians.
“We’ll be short of power,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern as to how we’ll reach capacity. You could have blackouts in rural Oregon and electrical grid crashes.”
But a study in 2018 by Energy Strategies LLC for the Seattle-based Northwest Energy Coalition begs to differ.
The analysis quantified the power from the lower Snake River dams and assessed the fixed and variable costs of implementing renewable replacements, such as wind and solar, and what that would do to market prices.
The lower dams provide nearly 4% of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity, according to the report, and at less than a 1% increase in emissions, a new energy portfolio relying on renewables and increased energy-efficiency would add a bit more than $1 a month to customer costs.
But Energy GPS LLC refuted that last month in a study for Northwest RiverPartners. It stated the lower Snake River dams generate up to 5.5% of the region’s electricity and replacing that power would cost $860 million a year.
“The essence of it is this — the capabilities of these dams cannot be easily or inexpensively replaced. This would hurt those in Eastern Oregon who can least afford it,” Case stated in an email to the East Oregonian.
Case also said he doesn’t think the federal approval needed to remove the dams would come anytime soon.
“These dams would have to be removed by congressional action. It would cost billions of dollars,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to prevent that, but I see no broad support for such action.”
For the Governor’s Office, the letter to Inslee is simply an initiation of discussion about the long-term future.
In an email to the East Oregonian, press secretary for Brown, Kate Kondayen said the letter does not call for tearing the dams out, “as has been characterized in initial coverage.”
“Instead, Oregon is asserting that we see value in analyzing a future without the dams in the long term, but focusing any definitive next steps on working together to identify a viable path forward to that future with interim steps such as flexible spill agreements,” she stated.
Brown’s letter raised eyebrows for farmers and ports about what dam removal would mean for the transportation industry. The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association asserts the Columbia Snake River System is the nation’s largest wheat export gateway, transporting more than half of all U.S. wheat to overseas markets.
“Compromising, jeopardizing, eliminating any proponent of the system jeopardizes the region on many levels,” said Port of Umatilla General Manager Kim Puzey. “The timing is not great.”
Brown’s letter comes a few weeks before a draft of the Columbia River Systems Operations Environmental Impact Statement is anticipated to be released in conjunction with the Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power in response to a federal ruling calling for a major overhaul of Columbia Snake River dam operations in 2016.
The Port of Umatilla has invested more than $100,000 in litigation regarding dam removal, and is home to one of Oregon’s largest wheat terminals along the Columbia Snake River System.
United Grain Corp operates the terminal and traffics hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat along the Snake River every year, including yields from Umatilla and Morrow counties.
“As a grain company we depend on the river system heavily,” said Pacific Northwest United Grain manager Jason Middleton.“Farmers enjoy a low basis number. (Removal) would have an immense impact.”
Puzey and Middleton question the fuel efficiency of relying more heavily on trains and trucks without the barge locks provided by the dams.
“People who are concerned with a carbon footprint and the airshed as it relates to transportation can’t possibly make a viable argument that the dams be removed,” Puzey said.
According to the Waterways Association, transportation via barge is the most fuel efficient. A single barge on a river can carry as much cargo as 134 trucks can.
“Removal would put many more trucks on the freeways and the highways. Infrastructure costs would go through the roof,” Middleton said.
But David Moryc, a senior director for American Rivers, said continued discussion could lead to cost-effective solutions, possibly through the formation of a shortline railroad cooperative along the Snake River.
“It’s really important we think strategically about infrastructure upgrades,” Moryc said. “How do we replace and improve the benefits that farmers want to see from their transportation systems?”
He asked how the billions of dollars being poured into salmon restoration along the river could be reinvested were dam removal to boost populations back to historical levels.
“You’re talking about really high valued habitat where currently the salmon and steel stocks are having trouble because they have to pass through eight dams,” he said.
American Rivers has helped negotiate river restoration projects and private dam removals around the Pacific Northwest.
“You’ve got a number of examples of significant dam removal projects in history. We’re seeing positive responses for salmon returns,” he said.
Moryc said some utility entities have decided salmon restoration efforts and maintenance costs outweigh the price-tag from options outside hydropower.
He doesn’t know how long it could take for dam removal to come to a head at a federal level, and added the environmental impact statement coming later this month likely won’t advocate for dam removal. Still, Moryc said he sees a spark in Brown’s recent letter.
“My hope is that there are some seeds here,” he said, “some kernels of hope in the dialogue.”