June 13, 2022
A highly anticipated report about the possibility of breaching four hydroelectric dams along the lower Snake River appears to be all sound and fury signifying, well, very little.
Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., commissioned the report in the wake of growing discussion about the future of the dams — with one of the primary goals being to improve native salmon runs. A draft version announced Thursday said the benefits provided by the dams can be replaced.
Finding other ways to provide electricity and irrigation while enabling river navigation would cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion says the report, which does not make a recommendation on whether the dams should be breached.
Involvement from the governor and the senator is welcome; this is an issue of regional significance and national interest.
But a report saying it would be expensive to mitigate dam loss while providing a remarkably broad price tag is not particularly helpful; we already knew it would be expensive. If a potential homebuyer were told that a house costs between $103,000 and $272,000, they likely would walk away without giving it a second thought; there’s too much ambiguity.
The preliminary report allows for a month of public input to help inform decision-makers. Given the issue’s importance to tribes, river users, upstream commerce, farmers and ranchers, there will be no shortage of opinions. The dams provide flood control, hydroelectricity and irrigation that are essential to the region’s economy. At the same time, they hamper salmon runs that have dwindled for generations and also feed orca in the Pacific Ocean.
Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Thursday introduced a bill to protect the dams, which are located in their districts. “What’s alarming is trying to breach them at a time when families in Eastern Washington are paying record-high energy costs just to keep the lights on this summer,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Actually, what’s alarming is that a member of Congress would seize the low-hanging fruit of immediate concerns rather than taking a long-term view of a decision that will resonate for generations.
A more thoughtful approach has been taken by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who spent three years speaking with stakeholders and developing the Columbia Basin Initiative. That $33.5 billion legislation would remove the dams and provide funding to replace the electricity and the barging capacity that would be lost, along with irrigation that is necessary for agricultural concerns.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has opposed breaching the dams. “The clean, renewable power generated by the dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers supplies half of the Pacific Northwest’s energy and is critical for a reliable power grid,” she said about Simpson’s plan.
That is a reasonable position, and one that should be part of ongoing discussions about whether or not to remove the dams. But it also must be mentioned that the Snake River dams have little generating capacity in comparison with dams along the Columbia.
One thing we all should be able to agree upon is that salmon-boosting strategies of the past several decades have been inadequate. The federal government has spent more than $17 billion on Snake River salmon recovery, yet by 2017 the number of returning chinook dropped below 10,000.
That calls for quick, intensive solutions. Whether those include breaching dams on the lower Snake River remains to be seen.