Breaching dams could have negative impacts on vulnerable communities

The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Pomeroy, Wash. A $750,000 report, which looked at the possible effects of breaching the four lower Snake River dams, summarized the issues around protecting endangered species while maintaining renewable energy supplies, riverine transportation and irrigation.

PENDLETON — A $750,000 report, which looked at the possible effects of breaching the four lower Snake River dams, summarized the issues around protecting endangered species while maintaining renewable energy supplies, riverine transportation and irrigation.

The draft report funded by the Washington Legislature took about three months to conclude that breaching the dams might help save orca populations, but the bigger picture is more complex. Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said breaching the dams could have negative impacts on vulnerable communities.

The vast majority of Northwest RiverPartners’ members are nonprofit utilities, Miller said, but some are farmers, managers or port districts. He said the organization formed in 2005 as a coalition to promote what its members consider smart salmon recovery.

“My members are salmon advocates and we want solutions that consider salmon and people,” he said.

The four federally owned dams on the lower Snake River are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.

Miller said the dams not only keep energy affordable, but they are an important supply of electricity where there are more and more demands. Pointing to a symposium in Portland last October, attended by 400 utility leaders and policymakers, Miller said securing the region’s energy sources is imperative.

“Coal plants are being retired and we believe the dams are truly critical to avoid blackouts,” he said.

The risk to those who depend on the dams for energy is also an outcome of climate change.

“Given temperature projections, the region could have the same kind of issues as California,” Miller said.

Even with more solar and wind farms coming online, Miller said they can’t fill the gap created by coal plant closures because wind and solar sources generate power intermittently, and power use and supply have to be kept in balance.

The advantage of using hydropower, along with solar and wind, is what Miller called the “second-by-second gap filling regulation.” Hydroelectric dams fulfill this requirement by holding back water, and then releasing it through power-producing turbines as needed.

Although the new report doesn’t guide policy, Miller said it does recommend continued regional stakeholder discussions.

Greg Haller, executive director of Pacific Rivers, is closely following the rising tide of concern around breaching or keeping the dams. He said he didn’t feel the report moved the conversation.

“I feel like we didn’t need a $750,000 report to tell us it’s a divided issue,” Haller said. “It offered no solutions. Hopefully, our elected leaders will build on or move toward a solution rather than rehashing the issues that are the sticking points.”

When Haller mentioned elected officials, he said he was specifically referring to the House of Representatives and momentum created by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who broached the topic of how the region can meet its energy needs while maintaining transportation, irrigation and securing the future of Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power produced by the four lower Snake dams. Haller said Simpson looked at the transportation concerns about dam removal and suggested making the railroads farmer-owned.

“I am disappointed in our elected leaders in Oregon and Washington didn’t use Simpson’s opening to bring together a legislative solution,” Haller said. “Only Congress can make the dams go away.”

With the ultimate authority residing in Washington, D.C., Haller said elected leaders need to forge a solution that everyone can live with because the status quo isn’t working.

“We still have a steelhead run in the toilet, chinook on a trajectory toward extinction and sockeye aren’t faring any better,” he said.

As fish runs continue to decline, Haller said BPA struggles as well.

“We are in a new kind of energy environment,” he said. “Meanwhile, I think the salmon have given all they can give, something else has to give, now.”

The pivotal release of the Draft Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement by the federal action agencies is due in February. The report will analyze the societal, environmental and economic costs and benefits of breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

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