Telling the Truth about the Lower Snake River Dams – by Lin Laughy
The law locks up both man and woman Who steal the goose from off the common But lets the greater felon loose Who steals the common from the goose.
— Old English Proverb
Like the air we breathe, rivers belong to all of us—young and old, rich and poor. Rivers are part of the great American commons. But special interests have dammed our rivers, polluted our waters, driven our fish to extinction—and all Americans pay the cost.
The special interests that believe the lower Snake River belongs to them have recently mounted major propaganda and misinformation campaigns to protect the four Lower Snake River (LSR) dams. Only if the truth is widely told can we, the people, take back our commons and resurrect the river. Here are some of the truths that need telling:
- The LSR dams operate at only 31% of nameplate capacity and produce less than 3% of the Pacific Northwest’s power supply. In 2013 Pacific Northwest wind energy produced 3.4 times as much power as did all 4 LSR dams. We presently have a surplus of power and will continue to have a surplus for the foreseeable future—with or without the LSR dams. All 24 of the four dams’ turbines have now reached their useful lives or will do so within the next dozen years. The cost to rehab those turbines in today’s dollars is con- servatively estimated at $776 million.
- Freight transportation on the LSR has declined 69% since the year 2000, with most in- dustries abandoning water transport completely. In 2014, for example, Clearwater Paper, located just 2 miles from the Port of Lewiston, shipped 99.5% of its total produc- tion by truck and rail. Container-on-Barge (COB) shipping declined by 82% since 2000. In spring 2015, all COB traffic on the LSR was suspended indefinitely. The U.S. Corps of Engineers officially categorizes the LSR as a waterway of “negligible use,” which would remain the case even if current levels of freight transportation doubled.
- The LSR provides no flood control. Lower Granite Dam actually creates a serious flood risk for the city of Lewiston, Idaho. Increasing sediment in the Salmon, Snake and Clearwater Rivers related to forest fires and global warming will in the future make this problem both more acute and more expensive.
- Lower Snake River irrigation water comes only from the pool behind Ice Harbor dam, serves fewer than 20 farms, and would still be available from a free-flowing river at a tiny fraction of the cost of maintaining the dams and waterway.
- The Corps of Engineers has spent over $600 million “fixing” the 4 LSR dams to enhance salmon and steelhead smolt passage, yet these threatened and endangered fish re- main in jeopardy of extinction. Nearly 50% of all Snake River smolts die each spring passing through the 8-dam Snake and Columbia River hydro system—over 10 million
smolts each year. Of the survivors, Caspian terns and double-crested cormorants eat an estimated 14% as the fish pass by bird colonies on an island the Corps of Engineers created from dredging spoils. In 2015 the Corps began slaughtering 16,000 cormorants as its next “solution” to smolt loss.
- Avoiding the extinction of Snake River wild salmon and steelhead requires a Smolt-to- Adult (SAR) return ratio of at least 1%. Recovery requires an SAR of 2%-6%. In the past 18 years the average SAR for SR wild salmon is .59% and has never exceeded .8%. In 2013 NOAA Fisheries acknowledged “Chinook survival through the hydropower system has remained relatively stable since 1999 with the exception of lower estimates in 2001 and 2004.” “Stable” in this instance means “no improvement.”
- Southern Resident Killer Whales in the vicinity of the San Juan Islands are among the 8 most endangered species protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminis- tration, with numbers now totaling just 81 animals. Their principal food source is Chi- nook salmon, and the Snake River was historically one of the principal sources of the Orcas’ diet. Restoring the LSR to free-flowing status is key to these whales’ survival.
- The LSR dams rob Pacific Coast and Columbia/Snake commercial fishers of their po- tential catch, cost hundreds of millions of dollars of lost income for recreation and tourism businesses, kill thousands of jobs, and damage small communities from the west coast to Riggins and Salmon in the interior of Idaho. Breaching the LSR dams would also return approximately 14,000 acres of flooded property to beneficial use, in- cluding agricultural land and rich riparian habitat.
- The LSR dams violate U.S. treaty obligations. Salmon are a key element in the cultural heritage of many people in the Pacific Northwest, but for Native Americans these fish are woven into their very existence as a people—their sustenance, economic well-being and spirituality. Treaties with various tribes require the continued existence of both water and fish. To argue otherwise is to dishonor the sacred trust of the American peo- ple and the U.S. Constitution.
- Climate change is now making all of the above problems worse. More forest fires will produce more sediment, increasing flood risk. Hotter summers and lower river flows will increase LSR water temperatures, made worse by the solar energy absorbed by the 4 reservoirs behind the dams. More adult salmon will abandon their migration due to ther- mal blocks, become diseased and die.
Waterborne transportation is in steep decline on a waterway of “negligible use.” Lower Snake River hydropower has been replaced three times over by wind energy, and when all costs are included, “cheap” LSR hydropower is a myth. These dams have crippled the economies of dozens of communities from the Pacific coast to Riggins and Salmon, Idaho. They have significantly harmed numerous Native American tribes and have created an ecologi- cal disaster. Global warming promises further problems.
The only rational course of action? Breach the 4 lower Snake River dams. Soon.
— Linwood Laughy