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Restoring the Lower Snake River

iceharbordam1Marissa Luck, January 16, 2017

(Eds' note: This informative article contains a number of misleading quotes and assertions by defenders of the lower Snake River dams - including, for example, the impact of dam removal on regional electrical rates, the "need" for natural gas plants to replace lost hydro-power, or the implications of dam removal on transportation and the opportunities to replace waterborne navigation with salmon-friendly alternatives like rail. For more information specifically on transportation issues associated with lower Snake River dam removal, see this new piece by Idaho resident Lin Laughy: Many Dollars and Little Sense. Salmon and fishing advocates welcome a fact-based debate on the actual costs and benefits of the lower Snake River dams - and the opportunity to work with people in the region to develop an effective plan to replace the dams' modest services with alternatives in order to restore the river and its endangered salmon populations. -jb)

Longview, WA. Even though the four Lower Snake River dams are nearly 300 to 400 miles away, breaching them could unleash far-reaching effects on Cowlitz County. Local electricity rates, port industries and fisheries could all be impacted by removing the dams. And that’s exactly what some want.

Advocates say removing the dams is the fastest and best way to save wild salmon runs, which would be a boon for both commercial and recreational fishers here and across the region.

“It just seems like it’s common sense. We’re facing climate change. We’re facing ocean acidification. But the one thing we can do to give them a shot against all these other factors is opening up this huge piece of habitat,” said Sam Mace, outreach director for Save Our Wild Salmon.

But Cowlitz PUD officials, like other utilities in the region, worry that removing the dams would drive up electricity rates for their customers. Paper mills like Norpac contend it could hike up their costs, making their products less competitive on the global market. And several area grain mills — including one in Longview and two Kalama — would have to find a new ways to get white wheat from Idaho, possibly driving up costs.

Whether dam removal would increase or decrease greenhouse gas emissions remains a hotly-debated concern.

Rob Rich of Shaver Transportation argues the four dams play a vital role for the whole river system. “Can you take a large blood vessel out of your leg? Yes you can actually. And eventually your leg will function again. It will just never function as well,” Rich said.

Dams at issue again
Debates have swirled around the four Lower Snake River dams for 30 years. Last May, a federal judge rejected the government’s fifth plan to manage endangered salmon and ordered the three federal agencies responsible for dams to prepare a new plan and take a hard look at all options, including dam removal.

“Despite billions of dollars spent on these efforts, the listed species continue to be in a perilous state,” Judge Michael Simon wrote in his decision. “The (Federal Columbia River Power System) remains a system that ‘cries out’ for a new approach.”

His order triggered a new five-year environmental review of the entire Columbia-Snake River system, led by Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. A comment period on the scoping of the environmental impact statement ends Feb.7.

How fish would fare
Dams present some tough challenges for juvenile salmon: Warmer water temperatures behind the dams, predators and the energy-intensive process of swimming through locks and ladders can be lethal for baby fish trying to make it to the ocean.

A total of 13 salmon and steelhead species were listed as endangered or threatened after reaching dramatically low number in the 1990s. Since then, federal agencies have invested billions of dollars into making the dams more fish-friendly by increasing the number of ladders, spillways and diversions, and even transporting salmon around the dams by barge and tank trucks. In Cowlitz County, about 25 cents of every dollar Cowlitz PUD pays to Bonneville goes toward BPA’s fish and wildlife program.

“We really believe that the survival of fish coming through the system is better than it used to be,” said Micheal Milstein, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries. In the 1970s and 1980s, just about 80 percent of fish successfully survived through each individual dam. Now about 95 percent to 98 percent of fish survive from the top of each dam to the bottom. “That’s the a pretty significant improvement,” Milstein said.

Despite the improvement, last year NOAA’s five-year review of Snake River salmon and steelhead runs found that there wasn’t a significant enough improvement to take them off the endangered species list.

And advocates say that fish recovery rates are a far cry from where they need to be. For every 100 salmon that go out to the ocean, about 2 percent to 6 percent of them must return for sustained recovery, according to targets from Northwest Power and Conservation Council. According to the Fish Passage Center, over the last 15 years, return rates have frequently hovered around 2 to 4 percent, but have dipped to 1 percent or lower at some points. And in 2015, a heat wave killed off thousands of returning Columbia Basin salmon, compounding the problem.

Electric rates to rise?
About 5 percent of the region’s power comes from the Lower Snake River dams. That’s enough to power the City of Seattle, according to BPA.

Advocates claim power from the dams could be replaced with renewable energies. But there’s a hitch: energy from wind and solar can’t be stored, so they can’t mimic the continuous reliability of hydropower. Instead, BPA says it would have to replace the dams with gas-fired power plants, which are expensive and have higher greenhouse gas emissions.

While BPA isn’t certain how removing the dams would affect electric rates, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimated in 2010 that Bonneville’s rates would rise anywhere between $1 to $8.15, per megawatt hour. As BPA’s second largest customer, Cowlitz PUD gets 80 percent of its power from the federal agency. Any increases to BPA costs could have a direct impact on customer rates here.

And a potential increase could be a blow for paper mills and energy- intensive industries here, dam supporters say.

“For industry here on the river, especially Noparc, Weyerhaeuser, Nippon Dynawave and KapStone, low-cost electricity is absolutely critical to our survival. That’s one of the reasons why these industries are here today, because of the hydroelectric system,” said Craig Anneberg, CEO of Norpac, who also serves on the board of Northwest Riverpartners, a pro- hydroelectric group. Any increase in electricity costs could hurt paper mill’s competitiveness on the global market, Anneberg said.

“This issue could have an impact on jobs, especially in our county,” he added.

But anti-dam advocates say fears about electricity rates spiking are overblown. Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, said studies suggest residential bills may increase by about $1 per month. He argues that additional gas-fire plants could be avoided by using “a combination of wind, solar and smart gird management and planning.”

How would it affect industry?

Paper mills aren’t the only industries paying attention: the dams are used to move barges of wheat, wood chips, logs and the occasional large, odd-sized cargo smoothly from Idaho to the mouth of the Columbia River. Without the dams, rapids, waterfalls and swift-moving currents would make the river impassible. About 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports move through the Snake River, according to Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. In Cowlitz County, grain terminals in Longview and Kalama rely on the dams for shipments of white wheat from the Snake River region.

“If we were not able to get it by barge ... that makes us noncompetitive on the the global stage,” said Matthew Kerrigan, manager at EGT in Longview. “I really don’t know if we would be able to get (the wheat) elsewhere” but rail shipments may also be more expensive, he added.

While opponents to the dams claim freight traffic over the dams has been trending downward over the last 20 years, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association shows cargo use of the dams spiked 34 percent between 2012 to 2014.

Regardless of how often or for what purpose the dams are use, opponents believe the economic benefits are far outweighed by the damage to native salmon.

“The (dam navigation) system we’re subsidizing with taxpayer dollars is destroying the salmon runs, which are a huge economic asset,”said True, the Earthjustice attorney. “We have alternatives that can be just as efficient and just as (positive for) economic without the Snake River dams.”

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