Federal officials in charge of protecting threatened and endangered salmon runs say in a draft report that breaching one or more of the four lower Snake River dams, combined with a suite of other aggressive actions, is needed to recover the fish to healthy and harvestable levels.
They also commissioned an independent analysis that indicates replacing the power and grid services provided by the dams while also meeting the clean energy goals of Washington and Oregon would cost $11 billion to $19 billion under most scenarios, but could balloon to $75 billion in one scenario they called unlikely.
Together, the two documents released Tuesday show the Biden administration is willing to entertain restoration of the lower Snake River to its free-flowing state to give the wild salmon the best chance at recovery and the government its best shot at meeting obligations outlined in treaties with several Columbia Basin Indian tribes. It’s a move that other administrations have been content to sidestep because of its significant downsides, such as the loss of about 900 average megawatts of hydropower produced at the dams and the elimination and tug-and-barge transportation between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities.
But it’s also an indication that the once-unthinkable idea of dam breaching continues to build slow and steady momentum. Breaching was endorsed last year by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in his $33.5 billion Columbia Basin Initiative and one that may win the support of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray. The two democrats are expected to announce by the end of the month if they will support breaching.
Brenda Mallory, chairperson of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration is not endorsing breaching or any other strategies outlined in the report, but it is clear current salmon recovery efforts are not working and the goal of both documents is to inform regional and national leaders as they strive to formulate long-term fish recovery strategies.
“Business as usual will not restore the health and abundance of Pacific Northwest salmon. We need a durable, inclusive, and regionally-crafted long-term strategy for the management of the Columbia River Basin,” Mallory said.
The draft, Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead, states the short-term outlook for most salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers is grim but the resiliency of the fish combined with their productivity when conditions are favorables lends hope for long-term recovery. It examines ways to reach salmon and steelhead abundance goals for the Snake River, middle Columbia River and upper Columbia River formulated by the Columbia River Partnership Task Force, a group of regional stakeholders convened by NOAA Fisheries. Two years ago, the task force set fish abundance goals well above those that would lead to the fish being removed from federal protection, but significantly short of historic returns.
The draft report, written by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ranks dams as the largest limiting factor to the fish. It calls for a comprehensive package of actions to boost survival but says some measures are critical, such as breaching the Snake River dams, improved fish passage at lower Columbia River dams and reintroduction of salmon and steelhead to the upper Columbia River. It also says those steps, combined with continued efforts to improve estuary and tributary habitat and reduce the impact of predators, are all the more urgent in the face of climate change.
“We know these will be difficult and costly. We’re now inviting the tribes and the states who are our long-term partners and co-managing the fisheries to contribute their expertise and their knowledge to improve our draft report, and to help us define the next steps that we can take together in the Columbia Basin,” said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries.
Some Republican House members — including Russ Fulcher of Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of eastern Washington — slammed the report in a joint statement, saying the Biden administration is “cherry picking” data. They criticized NOAA Fisheries for working with the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon to develop the information. The Nez Perce Tribe and Oregon are both plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit that pits them, fishing and environmental groups against the federal government and its 2020 Columbia River System Operations Review that determined breaching would help the fish but wasn’t needed.
“As the members of Congress representing the range of stakeholders engaged in recovering endangered salmon and preserving the Columbia River power system, we must point out the reality that the draft report by NOAA, FWS, Nez Perce Tribe, and State of Oregon fails to acknowledge that salmon returns on the Lower Snake River have shown encouraging gains since 2019. In fact, this year, Spring Chinook returns are more than double last year and 31% above the 10-year average,” the statement read.
The report does acknowledge salmon like spring and summer chinook and sockeye are benefiting this year based on favorable ocean conditions but also said the longer trend shows the fish are in decline. For example, the 10-year average of smolt-to-adult return rates for each of the protected Snake River stocks is below 1% and the extinction risk for spring and summer chinook and sockeye is high. For steelhead and fall chinook, the extinction risk is moderate.
“Improvements in ocean conditions during 2021 provided a welcome respite, but are not expected to reverse ongoing trajectories (i.e. the increased frequency, magnitude, duration and scope of environmental downturns) associated with a changing climate,” according to the report.
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, was among the critics who said breaching will eliminate a source of clean energy and said he intends to protect the dams
“Only Congress — not the President — has the authority to remove these dams. Now more than ever, I remain adamantly opposed to breaching the dams on the Lower Snake River.”
The second report, commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration and compiled by Contractor E3 — Energy and Environmental Economics — said replacing the power and grid services of the four dams will be more difficult as Oregon and Washington implement increasingly strict clean energy standards. It will require 2,300 to 2,700 megawatts of new resources at a cost of $11 billion to $19 billion, and will likely rely to some degree on emerging technologies like advanced nuclear energy and carbon capture.
It could cost rate payers $100 to $230 per year. Under a scenario in which all of the power is replaced by existing green sources like wind and solar and no burning of fossil fuels is allowed, the cost could rise to $75 billion.
“(The Department of Energy) does not believed that scenario is realistic, and that the costs associated with that scenario, which are of course higher than the cost in the core reasonable scenarios, should not be taken as representative,” said Jeremiah Baumann, chief of staff for the Office of Infrastructure at the Department of Energy.
Shannon Wheeler, vice chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, said the assessment from NOAA Fisheries is welcomed. The tribe’s 1855 Treaty guarantees its right to fish for salmon.
“It’s just recognizing that the status quo and the work that is being done in the area of habitats that are being restored haven’t yielded the results that were expected and that larger dials need to be turned,” Wheeler said.
Chris Woods, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, said the findings have long been known, even to government officials.
“We can replace every single benefit provided by those dams but the salmon and steelhead need a river, it’s not any more complicated than that,” he said.
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, called the NOAA report troubling and noted the least expensive power replacement scenarios in the E3 report depend on technology not yet commercially available.
“We all want emerging technologies to be viable, but we cannot bet our climate and the health and safety of our region on something that doesn’t yet exist,” he said.
Neither of the reports address impacts to agriculture. Many farmers in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington rely on the dams to get their wheat to overseas markets.
“The idea of breaching the dams on the Lower Snake River would have a devastating economic impact on the livelihood of wheat growers beyond the (Pacific Northwest),” said National Association of Wheat Growers Nicole Berg.
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.