Removing Snake River Dams Deemed a Bad Idea

By Rodger Nichols

Graphic courtesy of the Bonneville Power Administration

The Columbia River and its tributaries— including the Snake River—impact nearly every resident of the Northwest in some way, providing hydroelectric power, recreation, navigation, water supply, flood risk management, and more.

To meet the many river uses requires managing a complex operation that includes storing and releasing water at just the right times and in just the right amounts to meet various needs. Actions that meet one need often make it more challenging to meet another.

Those who call for removing the four dams on the lower Snake River believe salmon runs will be restored but may not consider the ramifications to other river operations.

For example, in January, operators begin drafting reservoirs to make room for spring runoff and provide flood risk but sufficient water must still be available in early April to help propel juvenile salmon and steelhead in their migration to the ocean.

“All of the system’s purposes are important and must be carefully choreographed,” states the Columbia River System Operations final environmental impact statement.

It concluded breaching Snake River dams is not the best approach.

Concern about declining salmon runs led U.S. District Judge Michael Simon to order an environmental impact statement Columbia-Snake River system, including consideration of removing the four dams.

The EIS involved more than three years of regional collaboration among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, and other federal agencies, as well as numerous tribes and the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

According to information in the final EIS—released in September 2020—the survival rate of the salmon through dams remains in the 90th percentile for every dam.

The report concludes breaching dams is not the best alternative “due to the adverse impacts to other resources such as transportation, power reliability and affordability, and greenhouse gas emissions.”

There are numerous impacts to consider.

It Would be Bad for the Environment, Part 1

“The lower Snake River shallow draft navigation channel would no longer be available,” the report states, “eliminating navigation to multiple port facilities on the lower Snake River.”

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association says each typical four-barge tow moves the same amount of cargo as 140 rail cars or 538 semi-trucks. Transporting goods up and down the Snake River keeps more than 330,000 diesel-belching trucks off Northwest highways.

It Would be Bad for the Environment, Part 2

The four dams on the Snake River power up to 800,000 homes while producing zero carbon emissions and delivering power around the clock year-round. Wind and solar cannot replace that steady power because the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine.

The least-polluting steady power replacement would be natural gas—a fossil fuel. A 2015 BPA reliability analysis concluded replacement of the lower Snake dams with highly efficient natural gas generation would increase the region’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2.0 to 2.6 million metric tons annually. At the low end, this would be the equivalent of adding 421,000 passenger cars to the region’s roads each year.

It Would Be Bad for Highways

Adding the weight of 330,000 trucks on roads through the Gorge would accelerate the degradation of those highways and lead to more accidents and congestion.

It Would Be Bad for Farmers, Part 1

Lewiston is one of eight ports along the Snake River vital to farmers in the Pacific Northwest. More than 10 percent of U.S. wheat exports move via the Snake River each year.

With a loss of barge traffic, farmers would have to ship wheat and other crops by more expensive—and polluting—trains and trucks.

“The cost to transport wheat, which accounted for 87 percent of the downbound tonnage on the lower Snake River in 2018, is estimated to increase by $0.07 to $0.24/bushel,” the report states. “This is equivalent to an increase of 10 percent to 33 percent in average transportation costs.”

It Would Be Bad for Farmers, Part 2

According to the report, once the dams are removed and nearby groundwater elevations drop up to 100 feet in some areas, the 41 irrigation projects that take water out of the river would face a situation where pumps that supply this water would no longer be operational.

The report notes that more than 48,000 acres are irrigated in this fashion, primarily near Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams. These lands include high-value orchards and vineyards that produce an annual equivalent “social welfare” value of $17 million.

The regional economic effects stemming from a loss in crop production are $232 million in labor income and $460 million in sales annually, the report states, noting this reduction in activity also results in a loss of 4,800 jobs.

It Would be Bad for the Cruise Industry.

River cruises are growing in popularity as more people travel upriver to Clarkston on cruise boats. Ships make regular stops in communities along the river.

In 2017, more than 18,000 passengers toured the river and spent more than $15 million during their visits.

It would be prohibitively expensive.

Associated costs include:

  • $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion to breach the dams.
  • $274 million to $372 million annually to replace the lower Snake River dams’ capacity and energy while maintaining
  • system reliability with natural gas.
  • $98 million to $381 million annually attributed to the effects of carbon.
  • $7.4 billion to replace winter-critical energy with solar.
  • $25 million to $50 million to upgrade rail facilities to handle increased traffic.

These BPA estimates are from 2016. Actual costs are likely to be considerably higher with supply chain shortages and soaring material costs.

The EIS concludes the preferred alternative provides flexibility to adapt to changing conditions in the Columbia River Basin, ensures human life and safety can be protected through flood risk management, provides benefits to fish and wildlife resources, supplies water to farmers and cities, and ensures adequate, affordable and reliable power.

Read an executive summary of the final EIS view Executive Summary Columbia River System Operations Environmental (PDF).

Killer Whales & Salmon Consumption

According to a 2019 study in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, article reports that ecologists’ efforts to protect marine mammals— including orcas and sea lions—have had a devastating effect on salmon populations.

“Resident killer whales, which primarily occupy coastal waters, have nearly tripled in abundance in the northeast Pacific Ocean since the early 1970s,” scientists from the University of Washington, the University of Utah, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration write in the paper. “Killer whales are estimated to currently consume over 2.5 million adult chinook salmon each year. These consumption levels by killer whales now exceed the combined annual removals of chinook salmon by commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries.”