Today the lower Snake River dams (LSRDs) preform various functions; providing hydropower, navigation, irrigation and fish passage. Bonneville Power Administration bears almost all the costs of maintaining these functions, except for navigation, which is paid for by the federal government (taxes).
Between 1961 and 1975 the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state underwent a dramatic transformation when four dams were erected by the Army Corps of Engineers to create an inland seaport at Lewiston, Idaho. That transformation has proved costly for riverside communities and taxpayers who continue to subsidize the dams’ existence.
Since that time the dams have obstructed 140 miles of free flowing river between Lewiston, Idaho and Pasco, Washington, and have impeded the migration of salmon and steelhead, killing many millions each year, and landing all runs that weren’t wiped out, on the endangered species list.
Power produced by the dams and transportation benefits they provide pale in comparison with the billions spent by rate payers and taxpayers to maintain a broken status quo.
Fish passage at the dams can happen a couple ways. Through the turbines, letting water over the spillway (there is mandatory spill the court has ordered to aid salmon passage), through the fish ladders (adults), through the juvenile fish passage system (where they enter a small orifice upstream and are counted as they travel through the pipe to the other side) and finally they utilize barges and trucks to transport juveniles downstream.
Money is spent on all these strategies to get more salmon past the 8 dams in their way, ensure they can get through as quickly as possible, and that they have the highest probability of surviving, without negative effects (latent mortality).
Unfortunately, none of this has worked, less and less wild fish return each year (see salmon and steelhead for more metrics).
To make up for the declining runs, hatcheries are subsidized, and this is another large expense for BPA called “mitigation”. The department of fish and wildlife manages the 26 facilities that release millions of salmon a year. Once they are released, they are subject to similar undesirable conditions as wild fish are, as they migrate through the system to and from the Ocean.
Further mitigation: In the past few years, BPA has begun culling and disturbing sea lion and birds. This is based on research and observation that birds and sea lions’ diet includes young salmon. Sea lions gather at the mouth of the Columbia waiting for the salmon, and some are intelligent enough to detect the barges and trucks that will release their next meal. Birds like double crested cormorants nest on shorelines and islands while they feed, only to be killed, chased away or have their habitat destroyed. This controversial recovery method is at odds with the migratory bird act. Justifying this action takes the spotlight away from negative impacts of the dams, scapegoating and pinning the problem on other species. As the federal agencies become more desperate to recover salmon, we must hold them accountable to stop the use of this method, and start seriously considering breaching.
“From 2015 to 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the lethal removal of Doublecrested Cormorants in the Columbia River estuary. More than 5,000 cormorants were removed and more than 6,000 nests were destroyed.” – Letter from NPCC to U.S. Fish and Wildlife
The 2009 Washington State Marine Forecast projects the growth of freight transportation on the Lower Snake from 2003-2030 to be 0.0 percent.
Barging on the lower Snake River from Lewiston through Ice Harbor Dam is in serious decline. Over the past 18 years, freight volume has declined 69 percent, and container shipments from the Port of Lewiston, the only port on the river that ships containers, had dropped at least 82 percent by early April 2015—and 100 percent by late April 2015. The 2009 Washington State Marine Forecast projects the growth of freight transportation on the lower Snake from 2003-2030 to be 0.3 percent. Today even this projection is proving too optimistic.
There are an estimated 37,000 acres of industrial farmland irrigated by the reservoir behind one dam, Ice Harbor.
no flood control
Congress did not authorize flood control as a purpose and the dams were not designed for it. They are “run of the river” dams, meaning they were not built to store water. Due to sediment build up, Lower Granite Dam actually creates a flood risk to Lewiston, Idaho.
The rapidly rising costs of maintaining the lower Snake River system are presenting significant challenges to the federal agencies that manage the dams. The cost of mitigation hatcheries for lost Snake River stocks is rising a rate of 5 percent annually, and turbine rehabilitation over the next 15 years will require at least $775 million in today’s dollars. A growing set of cost indicators suggest the government can’t continue propping up the system.
- The National Academy of Sciences’ 2012 report analyzing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ portfolio of aging infrastructure showed that the Corps is in “an unsustainable situation for maintenance of existing infrastructure.”
- Declining federal budgets imply the improbability of large injections of cash into the Corps’ budget generally and the lower Snake River project specifically. Freight transportation on the lower Snake is so low that the waterway falls into the Corps’ category of a river of “Negligible Use.”
re-imagining the future
With the support of elected officials, the Corps has the authority and the time to update the 2002 EIS now and still act this year.
The dams are aging, and escalating costs of necessary maintenance—paid for with tax and rate payer dollars—are stressing already-tight federal agency budgets. Freight transportation has declined drastically as the combination of trucks and railways have become more efficient than trucks and barging. The dams produce hydro-power at a fraction of their capacity, and affordable replacement options are already in place, or readily available. The dams do not provide flood protection or any meaningful amount of irrigation.
Economic benefits of the dams are far below the costs (benefit to cost ratio of .15, meaning 15 cents in benefits to every tax dollar spent). Costs for operation and repairs currently exceed power revenues and economic benefits derived from navigation and irrigation.
Corrected Cost and Economic conclusions based on Corps data and planning processes show breaching via channel bypass has benefits ranging from 4 to 20 to 1 with Regional effects adding more than 5K jobs in E. Washington and Lewiston.
Irrigation pumps could be replaced and pipes extended to the Snake River for farmland irrigated behind Ice Harbor Dam. Or, the land could be converted to non-irrigated farmland or pasture. Either option would cost far less than maintaining the salmon-killing dams.
Reference Policy Considerations
We now have excellent examples of indisputably successful dam removal and river restoration projects: the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River of Washington state, Condit Dam on the White Salmon of Washington state, four dams on the Penobscot River in Maine and Marmot Dam on the Sandy River in Oregon. The widely-celebrated removals of these large dams has reduced taxpayer waste and restored fisheries, injecting additional dollars into rural economies.