A report summarizing the views of Washington residents about the fate of the four lower Snake River dams was released Friday.
The report that grew out of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Task Force does not make a recommendation about whether the dams should stay in place or be removed to help restore Snake River salmon and steelhead and provide more prey for the whales. Instead, it lays out a wide variety of perspectives on a host of issues related to the dams, fish and whales, and also highlights key uncertainties that need to be resolved.
“I thank all the stakeholders from all over the state for weighing in on this crucial issue,” Inslee said in a news release. “I encourage Washingtonians to get engaged in the public comment period over the next month and share their input on what should be done. We need to hear from a variety of people from different regions and perspectives.”
Last spring, the Washington Legislature approved a $750,000 request from the task force to take an in-depth look at Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams in eastern Washington. The 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.
For decades, salmon advocates have pushed for the lower Snake River to be restored to its former free-flowing state by breaching the dams. They say that would reduce mortality of both juvenile and adult salmon during their migration to and from the ocean and help recover the fish protected by the Endangered Species Act.
But the dams enjoy broad regional support because of the role they play in providing carbon-free energy, making it possible for barge transportation used by wheat growers to get their crops to coastal ports for shipment to overseas market and the irrigation water they supply to farmers near the Tri-Cities.
Three federal agencies — the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — are writing an environmental and economic review of all eight dams between Lewiston and Portland and are expected to release their findings early next year. Inslee intends to use the report released Friday to help shape his comments on the federal process.
The report was written by consultants led by Jim Kramer of Kramer Consulting. They interviewed about 100 people with an interest in the dams. They also summarized existing environmental and economic studies on the issue.
In the report, those supportive of keeping the dams tend to see the two-decade-plus, $17 billion effort to recover the fish as more successful than those who favor breaching the dams. Dam supporters also see the fish-saving efficacy of breaching as uncertain at best and potentially harmful. They say breaching the dams would hurt farmers by making it more expensive to get their crops to market, leave them captive to price hikes from railroads and reduce irrigation near the Tri-Cities. They are skeptical that federal and state governments would be able to mitigate those negative effects that include more truck traffic on highways and an increase in vehicle-related carbon releases.
Dam supporters say keeping the dams would preserve an important carbon-free energy source that increases the reliability of the Pacific Northwest power supply. They also say that breaching would increase the likelihood of future blackouts and harm Washington’s effort to move to a carbon-free energy supply. They are skeptical that energy such as wind, solar and conservation can make up for the power and services provided by the Snake River dams.
People who would like to see the four lower Snake River dams breached say it is likely the only way to save both salmon and steelhead in the Snake River and Puget Sound orcas, and view the on-going efforts to save the fish as largely unsuccessful. They believe the federal government would save money by breaching the dams and diverting money that would have been spent to maintain and upgrade the structures to developing additional rail capacity and other alternative ways for farmers to get their crops to market. They also believe energy produced at the dams could be replaced largely by carbon-free sources.
The report also touches on the views people hold on recreation with and without the dams and their feelings about the overall economic impact of life with or without the dams. The economic section serves as sort of a summary of all of the perceived impacts of the different topics — salmon and orcas, energy, agriculture, transportation, recreation and economics.
The report does not judge the views of various stakeholders or attempt to discern which views may hold more waters than others. Because it doesn’t reveal much new information and instead serves as a collection of public opinion, some say it is a waste of time and money.
“What this report tells us is Governor Inslee spent three-quarters of a million dollars and a year’s time to conclude ‘there are differing perspectives’ and ‘more information needed’ on this issue,” said Reps. Dan Newhouse and Kathy McMorris Rodgers in a joint news release. “We had no idea a year ago when we said this study would be a wasteful use of taxpayer dollars just how accurate we’d be — imagine how far $750,000 could have gone to directly support salmon recovery efforts. Every taxpayer in our state should be outraged.”
Some stakeholders do see the report as useful and say it could spur more regional cooperation around the complex issues of salmon, dams, energy and transportation.
“My hope is that this is a first step to Gov. Inslee supporting a more robust conversation about what it’s going to take to recover salmon and steelhead and save orcas and support healthy communities on the west side of the state and rural farming communities and places like Lewiston on the east side,” said Sam Mace of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition at Spokane. “That is new from the state of Washington and Gov. Inslee and I find that encouraging.”
Mace, who backs breaching, was one of the stakeholders interviewed by consultants hired to compile the report. Others interviewed said they were happy to be able to give their perspectives. Brian Shinn, chairman of the Asotin County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Snake River Salmon Recovery Board, felt he and other commissioners in southeastern Washington were able ensure their perspectives were considered.
For example, he was pleased the report included information on the increase in truck traffic and resulting vehicle emissions that would occur if barge transportation were eliminated.
“The result is massive air pollution and a great increase in cost,” he said.
Kurt Miller, executive director of the Northwest River Partners, said the consultants picked up his view that dam removal would threaten the reliability of the region’s power system and make it more difficult to reach goals to make Washington a carbon-free energy state. His organization represents community-owned utilities, ports and businesses, and supports keeping the dams.
“The thing that really shines through in the report is this is a complex issue,” Miller said. “A lot of people have said taking out the dams is a simple solution but you get a sense from reading the report there aren’t simple solutions to the challenges we face to getting to our desired clean-energy future and it’s going to take some considerably thoughtful work to get there in a way that doesn’t create hardships for vulnerable communities and doesn’t come with the risk of blackouts.”
Kramer identifies key questions that need to be answered to advance understanding. For example, in the section about salmon and orcas, he said more needs to be know about how the river might respond to breaching, the theory of latent dam-related mortality of juvenile salmon once they reach the ocean, and the feeding patterns of orcas. In the transportation section, he said more information is needed about the costs associated with upgrading rail lines and highways if the dams were breached and where funding would come from to help farmers, ports and shippers.
“I think it provides a good set of things that need to be explored for people to better understand and hopefully come to some conclusions about moving forward,” Kramer said.
The report is available for review and comment through Jan. 24 at http://lsrdstakeholderprocess.org/. A meeting on the report will be held from 6-9 p.m. Jan. 7 at Clarkston’s Quality Inn. A final report is expected to be issued in March.
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.