Study unveils views on Snake River dams

Jay Inslee

An effort initiated by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to explore the potential economic consequences and ecological benefits of either keeping or breaching the four lower Snake River dams is nearing completion.

Last spring, the Washington Legislature approved a $750,000 request from Inslee’s Orca Task Force to take a more in-depth look at Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams in eastern Washington. The federal dams provide hydroelectric power generation, inland barge transportation and a small amount of irrigation. But they also harm threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead that among other things provide a critical food source to southern resident killer whales, which are also endangered.

For nearly 30 years, the four dams have been at the center of the legal and public debate over the best way to recover salmon and steelhead protected by the Endangered Species Act. Many scientists and fish advocates say the dams must be breached if runs of wild Snake River salmon and steelhead are to be recovered. Farmers, grain shippers, power interests and the federal government contend breaching is not necessary and it would carry severe economic consequences.

In the last decade, the dams have also been tied to the fate of Puget Sound orcas that feed on several runs of chinook salmon stretching from northern California to Alaska. The whales face multiple threats, including a scarcity of prey. Their recent link to chinook from the Snake River has changed the political dynamics in Washington state around the dam breaching question.

The Inslee-supported, Washington-centric look at the Snake River dams is intended to help the governor and the state shape comments on an upcoming environmental and economic review of all eight federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and whether the four dams on the Snake should be recommended for removal. That review, ordered by federal Judge Michael Simon at Portland, and being led by the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, is expected to be released as a draft in February.

Four consulting firms were hired to carry out various aspects of the Washington effort focused on the lower Snake River dams. They include a summary of publicly available studies on the dams, interviews with regional stakeholders, writing a summary report and conducting public workshops.

A draft report summarizing about 100 interviews with people and organizations with interests in the dams, fish and whales is scheduled to be released Friday. That will be followed by a workshop from 6-9 p.m. Jan. 7 at Clarkston’s Quality Inn to share the findings of the report with the public. Workshops will also be held in the Tri-Cities and Vancouver, Wash.

“We were tasked to summarize in a report the positive and negative effects of either the dams staying in place or the dams being breached or removed,” said Jim Kramer, president of Kramer Consulting.

He said the draft report is likely to be about 60 to 70 pages long, not including the bibliography.

“It’s pretty high level and includes kind of the context for each issue, like economics or salmon, agricultural transportation and recreation, then what are the perspectives of people who believe the dams should be retained and then what are the perspectives of people who believe the dams should be breached or removed?” he said. “What are the outstanding questions that need more information?”

The report will not include a recommendation. Nor will it look at potential impacts outside of Washington.

People may submit written comments on the draft report. The public workshops won’t be conducted as hearings where people are asked to express their views. Instead, the workshops will focus on explaining both the findings of the report and the ongoing process.

Kramer said they will be held in an open house format where people can look at displays explaining the work. There will also be a short presentation followed by a panel discussion with some of the stakeholders who were interviewed.

Written comments on the draft will be accepted through Jan. 24. There is also an online survey people can fill out, and it is also open through Jan. 24. It is available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/lsrdsurvey.

A final report is expected to be completed and submitted to Inslee and the Legislature in early March.

More information is available at http://lsrdstakeholderprocess.org/.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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