“Alternative Facts” and the Lower Snake River Dams

Special thanks to Linwood Laughy for this post.

March 20, 2017

“Alternative Facts” and the Lower Snake River Dams

Propaganda—information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view

New Oxford American Dictionary


The Corps of Engineers and special interest lobbying groups are duping the public through a major misinformation campaign about the Lower Snake River (LSR) dams. Ports, public utility districts, state-sponsored commissions and private corporations serve as echo chambers for this effort.

A recent presentation to a chapter of the League of Women Voters presented by the manager of the Port of Lewiston and recorded by a local radio station serves as an example. Because the speaker heads a government agency, the audience had reason to expect truthful information regarding relevant topics such as hydropower generation, marine freight transportation and salmon recovery. In the account below, the manager’s claims made during this presentation appear in italics, followed by facts. Information sources for those facts include the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPC), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterborne Commerce of the United States Statistical Data Center (WCUS), the Port of Lewiston (POL) website, and the Fish Passage Center (FPC).


Claim: Northwest hydropower provides 60% of the power in the Pacific Northwest grid.

This statement conveniently camouflages the fact the combined four LSR dams produce only 6.5% of Pacific Northwest hydropower, and less than 4% of the energy in the PNW grid.

Claim: Wind and solar cannot replace the electricity produced by the LSR dams.

PNW wind turbines now produce nearly three times more energy than is produced by the combined four LSR dams.  Thus in the Pacific Northwest, wind has already replaced the energy produced by these dams, with more wind energy coming on line every year. Further, while the LSR dams produce less than 4% of PNW power, the region currently has an energy surplus of 15%, which the NWPC estimates will be the case for at least the next 20 years. Finally, solar energy’s cost is declining rapidly, and we can expect more solar energy to be fed into the PNW grid in the near future.

Claim: The Snake River dams produce enough energy to light up the city of Seattle.

This statement misleads by counting on your confusing the “city of Seattle” with what you likely think of as “Seattle,” that is, the city proper plus its numerous contiguous cities recognized as the Seattle Metropolitan Area. Further, this statement counts on your thinking “all year.” LSR power production fluctuates greatly by month. The four LSR dams produce enough power for just the actual City of Seattle (population 685,000) and for only about four months per year. The implication that Seattle metropolitan area residents need the power produced by the four LSR dams to make toast for breakfast is ludicrous.

In recent comments to the federal partners who manage Columbia and Snake River dam operations as part of the NEPA analysis ordered by Judge Simon on May 4, 2016, Seattle City Light stated its support for “a comprehensive examination of a full range of alternatives, including scenarios that remove one or more of the dams on the Snake River…” City Light’s recommendations continued: “The analysis should assume that any generating capability lost as a consequence of implementing an alternative is not immediately replaced, but rather replaced when needed as a result of regional load growth. Furthermore, the analysis should prioritize replacement of energy output and peaking capabilities with a combination of energy conservation, renewable resources and demand response.”  (Italics added for emphasis)


Claim: In 2014, 4.4 million tons of freight were barged on the lower Snake River.

Here is another frequently cited “fact” propagandized to hide the truth. Nearly all freight transported on the reservoirs and through the locks of the four lower Snake River dams is downriver bound. In 2014, down bound freight totaled 2.75 million tons, 2.56 million tons of which was “Food and Farm,” almost exclusively grain.  Total unbound freight on the river was 1.61 million tons, with 1.48 million tons consisting of petroleum and petroleum products. However, WCUS records show clearly that none of that petroleum passed through Ice Harbor dam, located 9 miles upstream from the Snake River’s mouth. All of the petroleum was apparently delivered to the petroleum storage tanks at the Port of Pasco, located just 2 miles up the Snake from its mouth. Thus the shipping volume in 2014 that would be impacted by LSR dam removal was only 63% of the claimed volume of 4.4 million tons. Total volume of freight passing through the LSR dams in 2015 was only 1.44 million tons, just 33% of what the port manager (and his cohorts) claim.

Port of Lewiston container shipments
Port of Lewiston container shipment decline.

Claim: The Corp of Engineers has no “negligible use” category to describe the value of a waterway, and the Columbia-Snake is a “medium use” river.

This statement correctly indicates that the Corps does categorize rivers according to the volume of freight transported and that the Columbia-Snake falls into the medium use category.  However, the above “Columbia-Snake” statement camouflages the Corps’ category for the Snake River itself. In a 2014 written and oral report to the Inland Waterways User Board meeting in Walla Walla (“Total Risk Exposure – Update and Discussion), the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Chief of Operations and Regulatory outlined three categories of waterway use: High Use, Moderate Use and Low Use.  The Low Use category was further divided into Low Use and Negligible Use.  Negligible use waterways transport less than 500 million ton-miles of freight annually (a ton-mile is defined as moving one ton of freight one mile). The Corps’ Waterborne Commerce of the United States Statistical Data Center lists the lower Snake at 300 million ton-miles, in other words, in the negligible use category.

Here are facts about freight transportation through the LSR dams that were NOT mentioned by the port manager:

  1. a) In 2000, the Port of Lewiston (the only container shipping port on the LSR) shipped 17,590 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of containers. By 2005 that volume had declined to 5,735 TEUS, and in 2016 to 101 TEUs, half of which were hauled not by barge but by truck. The current level of container shipping is zero. Any return of container shipping to the LSR is highly unlikely for multiple reasons.
  2. b) Total freight volume through the LSR dams has declined steadily over the past 20 years and shows no sign of recovery. Ice Harbor lock (the Snake’s most downriver lock) is considered the most accurate indicator of freight volume since little freight is shipped intra-waterway. Freight volume through Ice Harbor lock in 1995 was 4,581 thousand tons. By 2014 that volume had declined to 2,871 thousand tons, and in 2015, just 2,297 thousand tons.
  3. c) Shippers of almost all products other than grain have abandoned the waterway, belying the general claim that barge transportation is the most efficient and cost-effective way to ship freight. Even grain volumes on the LSR have declined by over 40% during the past 20 years, with Food and Farm volume on the Lower Granite reservoir (most upriver reservoir) down 50% over the same period (1995-2014).
  4. d) Finally, during the past 15 years taxpayers have spent over $30 million just on sediment management in the Lower Granite reservoir, including the costs of planning and sediment removal. Most of that $30+ million was spent to maintain the navigation channel through the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers and up the Clearwater to the Port of Lewiston, where over 95% of the freight is shipped by a private corporation from its own property over its own docks, not by the public entity Port of Lewiston.


Claim: Finding genetically pure salmon or steelhead is a pretty tough thing to do.

The port manager here suggested that a salmon is a salmon, i.e., that the distinction between wild fish and hatchery fish is likely not valid. This statement is recognized as contrary to fact by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Fish Passage Center, and at least three federal judges.

Claim:  “Fish abundance” is on the rise.

As proof of this claim, the port manager presented a graph depicting total salmon returns on the Columbia River measured at Bonneville Dam, the dam closest to the ocean. As such, the graph offered little if any information about salmon returns on the Snake River, the principal topic of the evening’s presentation. In 2014 a total of 1,152,643 Chinook salmon crossed Bonneville Dam on the Columbia, but only 158,112 of those fish crossed Ice Harbor, the first dam on the Snake—just 14% of the Chinook counted at Bonneville. For Coho salmon, this percentage was 6%. In 2014 a total of 614,179 adult sockeye crossed Bonneville, with only 2,392 entering the Snake, less than half of one percent of the Columbia River count. For 2015 the respective percentages are Chinook, 15%; Coho, 3.5%; sockeye, 2/10ths of one percent. Claiming that salmon numbers at Bonneville Dam provide meaningful and honest information about fish numbers on the Snake River, let alone about threatened and endangered salmon, is well beyond the pale.

Claim: Dams are not the problem when dealing with the loss of juvenile salmon and steelhead.

The port manager acknowledged that juvenile salmon losses as a result of passing 8 dams is about 28%, but apparently considered the loss of these millions of juveniles not a problem. However, he conveniently failed to note that passage through dams alone ignores the problems created by the reservoirs behind those dams: delayed travel times, greater exposure to predators, higher water temperatures and resulting disease.  According to the Fish Passage Center, from 1999-2013 the average survival rate for wild Chinook salmon through Snake and Columbia River dams and reservoirs was 54%. For wild steelhead, the survival rate was 45%. These survival rates decline even further with post-Bonneville Dam avian predation. Finally, delayed mortality—the loss of juvenile fish in the Columbia estuary caused by the rigors of dam and reservoir passage—takes an additional toll. Hatchery fish do even less well.  A reasonable estimate for total juvenile fish survival is 35%-40%, not the 72% claimed for dam passage alone.

In 2013, NOAA Fisheries acknowledged that no juvenile fish passage survival improvement had occurred over the previous 13 years—despite the expenditure of over $700 million on just the 4 lower Snake River dams for so-called “fish passage improvements.”  Stated NOAA: “Chinook survival through the hydropower system has remained relatively stable since 1999 with the exception of lower estimates in 2001 and 2004”… only “stable.”

The true measure of successful recovery of threatened and endangered fish species is the smolt-to-adult return (SAR) ratio. Mere survival (non-extinction) of wild fish runs requires a minimum 1% SAR, and recovery of Snake River salmon and steelhead requires a 2%-6% SAR. From 1993-2013 the SAR for wild Chinook salmon averaged .89%. The return exceeded the minimum 2% SAR needed for recovery during only 2 of those 20 years. Fall Chinook SARs are lower still. Idaho’s Snake River sockeye are on the brink of extinction. No Snake River threatened and endangered salmon or steelhead species is on a path to recovery.

SARS are not increasing
Snake River Chinook SARs do not show recovery

You can find many other examples of misinformation about the lower Snake River dams—which in the present political milieu might be called “alternative facts”—on Corps of Engineers and port websites, in newspaper Op-Eds prepared by the directors of special interest lobbying associations, and in newsletters sent to customers of electrical coops. Much of this coordinated campaign of deception is paid for with taxpayer and ratepayer dollars. Thus the public is paying to be misinformed and misled.

The key fact remains that taxpayers and ratepayers have spent billions of dollars attempting to put threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead on a path to recovery—with virtually no success.

Linwood Laughy         Kooskia, Idaho            lochsalaughy@yahoo.com

To see a video recording of the January 18, 2017 presentation to the Moscow, Idaho League of Women Voters, go to http://www.moscowcares.com/LWV/Dam_Breaching_011817