When you’re losing an argument, it can be tempting to grasp at the other side’s points and try to co-opt them for your own.
By Ben Stuckart
April 14, 2922
That’s what defenders of the four lower Snake River dams are doing when they invoke climate change as a reason to keep the aging structures in place. Meanwhile, those same dams are pushing salmon toward extinction.
Supporters of the dams are trying to tell us they’re critical to address the harmful effects of a warming planet – largely based on the argument that hydroelectricity is clean energy.
To be sure, hydropower has its virtues and makes sense in the right places where its impacts on the environment are minimal. All renewable energy projects must be appropriately sited and maintained to minimize environmental, cultural and community impacts.
But these particular dams are hardly “green” when they are driving wild salmon to extinction.
That’s why Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee are looking at ways to replace the services these dams do provide – so we can keep our region whole while keeping salmon from disappearing forever.
While climate change is heating water all over the planet, the dams on the lower Snake are making the crisis here at home worse.
Dams are designed to pool water behind them. This does two things that are bad for salmon and steelhead. First, it slows that water down, warming it. It also increases the surface area of water far beyond that of a free flowing river, allowing extensive solar heating.
Warmer temps slow fish during their migration to and from the Pacific Ocean. That makes them easier prey. But it’s actually the warm water itself that threatens them most. Dams on the lower Snake are now causing the water temperature in the reservoirs to rise above 68 degrees for weeks at a time during the summer months. These are lethal temperatures for the fish. In 2015, high water temperatures on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers killed 99% of returning sockeye salmon.
As Shannon Wheeler, vice-chair of the Nez Perce Tribe’s executive committee, told Eugene Weekly, “Those dams burn salmon to generate their power.”
By removing the four dams and restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River, waters would remain cooler for longer, with much briefer temperature spikes, even during warmer months. And they would contribute those cool waters to the Columbia River as well.
Cooler waters are critical for salmon and other species throughout the Pacific Northwest as climate change advances. By 2080, the Snake River basin is forecasted to contain 65% of the coldest, most climate-resilient stream habitat in the lower 48 states.
The region has plenty of carbon-free, renewable energy resources. Developing them is a win for us now and for future generations.
We have the means available right now to diversify our energy sources and invest in solar and wind power along with increased energy efficiency and energy storage. And, with appropriate planning and lead time, we can do so without imposing economic hardship on Northwest communities.
As we consider our region’s future, these four dams are a vestige of the past.
They’re a half-century old, and in need of nearly $1 billion in upgrades to keep performing. You wouldn’t drain your savings to keep a rusting jalopy on the road. Nor should we be sinking resources into energy tech from the 1970s.
It’s fantastic that dam supporters recognize the crisis of climate change and the imperative we face to both reduce its impacts and build resilience to those effects where we can.
But their “solution” is really stasis. In a rapidly changing world, they’d like to keep the status quo. What has the status quo achieved over the past three decades for salmon? Nearly $20 billion in failed federal salmon plans, rising electricity prices, keystone species slipping toward extinction and no vision to carry us into a sustainable future.
We have an opportunity to bring salmon in the Snake River basin back to harvestable abundance. By removing the lower Snake River dams and replacing their services, we would honor our commitments that guarantee salmon to Northwest tribes. We would restore economic opportunities for fishing communities from the Rockies to the Pacific coast. We would build a resilient, robust and affordable clean energy future for our communities in the face of a climate crisis.
But that opportunity is now and the need to act is urgent. Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee must deliver an action plan by this summer for replacing the dams’ services, as they’ve pledged.
No one should accept the claim that the dams sending Snake River salmon and steelhead to extinction are critical to meeting our climate goals. That’s a deceptive, losing argument that is willfully ignoring the opportunity before us.
Let’s instead be clear-eyed about the challenges we face and courageous about seizing the opportunity we have for a clean, prosperous and salmon-rich future.
Ben Stuckart was Spokane City Council president from 2012-19.