2015 Review of Lower 4 Snake River Dams – by Lin Laughy

 In News

The Lower Snake River – 2015 in Review

2015 saw further declines in freight transportation on the Lower Snake waterway, near record low hydropower production, and an ecological disaster for threatened and endangered salmon. Here’s a recap:

  • Freight transport on the lower Snake dropped 20% in 2015 compared to the previous year. Freight volume has now declined 70% over the past fifteen years. Bulk grain is nearly the only product still barged on the river. Container shipping on the lower Snake has all but ceased, and the likelihood of a reopening of container traffic at the Port of Portland remains slim at best. The Snake River falls into the Corps of Engineers’ category of a waterway of “negligible use.” If freight volume doubled on the lower Snake, the river would remain a “negligible use” waterway.
  • Lower Snake River hydropower production fell to just 748 annual Megawatts (aMW) in 2015, the second lowest level in at least the last dozen years behind the 2013 output of 746 aMW. Compared to total nameplate capacity of 3,033 aMW, these dams in 2015 had an efficiency rating under 25%. In total, the four LSR dams produce less than 3% of the energy of the Pacific Northwest power grid and less than one-third of the output of Northwest wind energy. The Pacific Northwest presently has an energy surplus at least four times total LSR dam production, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council predicts this surplus will continue well into the future.
  • After 20+ years and billions of dollars spent on fish mitigation, four threatened and endangered wild Snake River salmon and steelhead species remain in jeopardy of extinction. In 2015, juvenile fish losses through the 8-dam Snake/Columbia hydro system exceeded 60%. Over 90% of returning Snake River adult sockeye perished due primarily to water temperature, with only 45 sockeye completing the journey to Redfish Lake.
  • Ocean conditions for anadromous fish continued to deteriorate, resulting in significant declines in some adult fish returns. For example, adult Coho numbers at Lower Granite Dam declined from 18,000 in 2014 to just 1,309 in 2015, a drop of 92%. For 2016, fish biologists predict 101,600 sockeye will enter the Columbia River compared with 2015’s run of nearly 511,000 at Bonneville Dam, a decline of 80%.
  • Finally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is now predicting first-quarter 2016 weather patterns for the Pacific Northwest similar to those during the same period in 2015: below-normal moisture, above-normal temperatures, an early snow melt resulting in low summer river flows. The Army Corps has been aware of major temperature issues on the Columbia and lower Snake since at least 1995 and has done little to address the problem.

Predictions related to climate change for the Snake River basin all suggest the exacerbation of all the above issues —lower water flows, higher water temperatures, poorer ocean conditions, more forest fires and increased sediment loads, the production of low levels of hydropower.

Meanwhile, the costs of operating and maintaining the four Lower Snake River dams continues to escalate. The cost of sediment management near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers over the past six years surpassed $27 million, with much of these costs attributable to maintaining the Port of Lewiston’s status as a “seaport.” Phase one of further fish passage modifications at Lower Granite Dam hit the $50 million mark in 2015, with still unknown costs for phase II. Total fish mitigation costs on the Columbia/Snake passed $14 billion (yes, billion), with 2014 costs alone reported to be nearly $800 million. A four-month river closure for major lock repairs that begins in December 2016 will cost more untold millions.

In October, 2015, the commander of the Walla Walla District, U.S. Corps of Engineers, publicly declared the Lower Snake River dams a great value to the American people, and later in the year the three ports in the Lewis-Clark Valley boosted their “public outreach” budgets from $30,000 to $75,000 to hire a Seattle-area public relations company to help convince local taxpayers of the ports’ and the Snake River waterway’s worthiness for further tax revenues.

At a November, 2015 panel discussion of the Lower Snake River dams, University of Idaho political science professor Patrick Wilson told the audience the status quo typically remains in place until a crisis occurs. One possible crisis relative to the lower Snake, according to Wilson, would be a court ruling that dam operations must be significantly modified or the dams removed. A decision in the present BiOp case is expected any day. However, plaintiffs have prevailed in every BiOp case over the past 20 years with limited change in Snake River dam and reservoir operations.

Wilson’s second example of a possible crisis was major fish losses brought about by climate change. A more accurate term for further major losses of Snake River wild salmon and steelhead is species extinction.

– Lin