A new economic analysis indicates that the benefits that would be derived from breaching the lower Snake River dams as a means to recover threatened salmon and steelhead populations outweigh the costs.

The “Lower Snake River Dams Economic Tradeoffs of Removal” was compiled by ECONorthwest for the Seatle-based Vulcan Inc., a company founded by Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft. It acknowledges substantive costs associated with breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

Those costs included making it more expensive for grain growers to get their crops to market and the loss of power generated at the dams. However, the study says the benefits of reducing the extinction risk for Snake River salmon and steelhead, combined with increases in river-based recreation over reservoir recreation, plus the jolt of spending and jobs that would accompany the work to physically remove the dams, would exceed costs by $8.6 billion.

“The Snake River dams provide valuable services; however, a careful exploration of the range of economic tradeoffs on publicly available data suggests the benefits of removal exceed the costs, and thus society would be better off without the dams,” wrote project director Adam Domanski of ECONorthwest in the report’s executive summary.

Domanski said people are willing to pay as much as $40 a year more for electricity if it means salmon and steelhead would be saved. He said dam removal pencils out even at the modest cost of about $8 more a year in electricity costs for the average household. The report acknowledges that replacing the power generated at the dams could lead to a modest increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Kerry McHugh, manager of corporate communications for Vulcan Inc., said the company has a history of tackling complex issues and noted the last rigorous look at the costs and benefits of the dams was done by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2002.

“Our goal in commissioning the report is to inform the public on this important regional issue,” she said.

The Bonneville Power Administration that markets electricity generated at federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers would lose revenue if the dams were breached, but the agency would also experience lower costs to maintain the dams and reductions in costs associated with mitigating for the harm the dams cause to fish.

While the costs associated from a loss of barge transportation would be steep, Domanski said they could be mitigated. Grain shippers would likely switch to rail or truck, or a combination of both, to get their crops to ports at the Tri-Cities, Portland and Seattle. That would put strains on the rail and highway systems and investments would be required to increase the capacity of those systems, according to the report. Shippers within 150 miles of the river system would pay more in fuel costs and shipping rates, and the region would see more traffic on highways, an increase in trucking-related accidents and more wear and tear on highways.

“The policy challenge should be trying to figure out a way to mitigate or compensate those costs,” Domanski said.

Dam removal would increase survival of juvenile salmon and steelhead as they migrate to the ocean and, in the long run, increase spawning habitat for fall chinook, according to the report.

The study was panned by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newman, both Republicans representing eastern Washington, as well as agriculture and shipping groups.

 “This privately-funded study is a slap in the face of our state’s agricultural economy. It is another example of Seattle-based interests seeking to disrupt our way of life in central and eastern Washington," McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse said in a joint statement. "Increases in carbon emissions, higher electricity bills and billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements that would be needed for irrigation and transportation hardly come across as a ‘public benefit.’ This report, like many others before it, fails to consider the consequences of dam breaching for communities and industries throughout the Northwest.”

The value of the dams, some of which have been in place for more than 50 years, versus the harm they cause to wild populations of Snake River spring, summer and fall chinook, steelhead and sockeye salmon has been a contentious issue for nearly three decades. Salmon advocates have long pressed for dam removal and say it is the surest way to save the fish that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Conversely, dam advocates say the dams are not primarily to blame for salmon and steelhead declines and removing them would be too costly. The federal government is in the midst of a yearslong look at the issue and is expected to release an environmental impact statement and economic analysis on the issue next year.

Among the highest costs associated with breaching identified by the ECONorthwest study would be replacing the carbon-free hydro power produced at the dams, as well as the cost to actually remove the dams and to restore the formerly impounded areas, according to the report.

But it found that a system of locks at the dams that allows barge transportation between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston that is used by many but not all farmers to get their crops to overseas markets operates at a loss. It also said the irrigation system the dams provide, mostly near the Tri-Cities, could be upgraded without substantial costs.

Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said dam removal would “devastate towns, businesses and families,” in the region. She said the region should wait for the federal government’s analysis of dams and salmon before passing judgment.

“We are nearing the end of a tremendously thorough, science-based effort to work toward salmon recovery in the Columbia-Snake River System,” she said. “Federal agencies are already studying the river system, and that includes breaching Snake River dams. With findings expected in early 2020, it is prudent for all of us to keep our eyes on the prize — science-based salmon recovery — and not get distracted with advocacy reports that have the appearance of, but not the facts of, science.”

Officials at the Port of Clarkston criticized the study for giving short shrift to the economic benefits of the cruise boat industry in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and said the fish can be saved without breaching the dams.

“Fish and dams are both critical to our valley and the Pacific Northwest,” Port Manager Wanda Keefer said. “We do not need an either/or approach to these issues. We need solutions that support salmon recovery, carbon-free hydropower, low-carbon and safe river transport, and recreational opportunities for all ages.”

Sam Mace, of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said the study is valuable for the benefits that it shows would come with dam breaching, but she said it excluded some of the most obvious.

“The study doesn’t take into account all the additional jobs that would be created in central Idaho and coastal communities and communities up and down the river from restored salmon. There are a lot of other benefits the study didn’t take into account,“ she said.

The study can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2SYNcLy.

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

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