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Four Lower Snake River Dams

Ben Moon / Whitney Hassett / Page Stephenson / Patagonia Photo Credit

The Draft EIS for Columbia and Snake River salmon is out for public comment. The comment period closed on April 13, 2020. Below are FOC’s comments.

FOC comments on Columbia Hydropower EIS-4-6-20

The Clearwater Basin of North Central Idaho provides excellent habitat for wild salmon and steelhead. The Wild Clearwater Country is the northern half of the Big Wild, which contains the largest remaining roadless, and undeveloped stretch of wildlands left in the lower 48 states. Native wild salmon and steelhead populations have called this place home for millennia.

The Lewiston Dam was built approximately 4-miles upstream from the confluence of the Clearwater River and lower Snake River in the 1920’s. It was removed during the 1970’s. Over the span of fifty years, wild Chinook salmon populations virtually ceased in the basin, while wild steelhead struggled to navigate the fish ladder(s) and populations plummeted.

The four Snake River dams on the lower Snake in southeast Washington were completed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Lower Granite Dam is located approximately 40-miles downstream of Lewiston, Idaho. Further downstream are Little Goose Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, and Ice Harbor Dam. Together they create approximately 140 miles of slackwater, and made Lewiston, Idaho the “farthest inland seaport” on the west coast.

The proposal to build the four lower Snake River dams drew strong opposition, particularly from state and federal fish biologists. They argued that damming the free-flowing lower Snake River would decimate wild fish runs. Despite objections, Congress approved construction. By the 1990’s, lower Snake River Coho were extinct, and lower Snake River spring Chinook, fall Chinook, and steelhead were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The Army Corps of Engineers built the four lower Snake dams mainly for barging transportation and for some energy production. The cost-benefit analysis was controversial then, and still is today. The dams never delivered the economic prosperity that they promised. Freight volumes on the lower Snake have declined 69% over the last twenty years, and container freight shipped from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho has declined 93% over the last sixteen years. The Army Corps of Engineers currently categorizes the lower Snake River waterway as “a waterway of negligible use”.

The four dams generate less than 3% of the power produced in the Pacific Northwest. Most of the power generated by the dams occurs during the spring (snowmelt) when demand and prices are low. Wind energy in the same region has blossomed, and now triples the nameplate capacity (maximum energy produced) of hydropower. There is currently an energy surplus in the Pacific Northwest.

The American taxpayer continues to heavily subsidize operation, maintenance, and repairs on the four lower Snake River dams. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent $600 million dollars over the last thirteen years for System Improvements, intended to improve fish passage for imperiled wild salmon and steelhead populations. These improvements have not worked. Survival of juvenile fish through the hydro system is only 50%, and smolt-to-adult return ratios (from the ocean) remain well below levels required for recovery of threatened and endangered wild Snake River salmon and steelhead.

Over the next fifteen years, all twenty-four turbines for the lower Snake River dams will need to be rebuilt. Cost estimates for replacing this aging infrastructure are $775 million dollars (today’s costs). This does not include the millions for annual operations and maintenance on the dams, along with other major repairs, over that same time period. None of this includes the $782 million the Bonneville Power Administration spends annually on fish mitigation (hatcheries, barging smolts, etc.).

The Army Corps of Engineers can no longer afford, nor justify, the continued operation of the four lower Snake River dams. The costs greatly outweigh the benefits. It is time to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

A free-flowing river could greatly improve wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Clearwater Basin, and deposit nutrients throughout the basin’s ecosystem. Wild salmon and steelhead populations have tremendous historical, cultural, ecological, and socio-economic value as well.

More News

Changing electrical grid may make Snake River dams expendable – August 2017.

Judge rules federal government Columbia/Snake River salmon recovery plan illegal – May 2016.

Study suggests breaching the lower Snake River dams benefits the economy – February 2016.

Study suggests costs outweigh benefits for maintaining navigation on lower Snake River – September 2015.

Study suggests lower Snake River dams not critical for Pacific Northwest energy capacity – June 2015.


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