June 14, 2023
TULALIP — The controversy over removing the four Lower Snake River dams in the Columbia basin has simmered for decades as salmon runs struggle. Yet Indigenous leaders and other proponents are watching closely as the nation’s biggest dam removal project gets underway in Northern California.
In under two years, four Klamath River dams are set to be ripped out, freeing 400 miles of habitat for salmon and other threatened fish.
“Everyone’s following them, in understanding that a free flowing system will become a healthy system and nature tends to fix herself if you let her fix herself,” said Nez Perce Chairman Shannon Wheeler, in an interview Tuesday on Tulalip land during the Northwest Tribal Clean Energy Summit.
The goal for the Nez Perce, whose ancestral lands span a large swath of present day Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, and other tribes is to see something similar happen on the Snake. But big challenges remain.
This year, Washington state lawmakers earmarked more than $7 million in funding to draw up plans to replace the energy, transportation and irrigation services currently provided by the four Lower Snake dams. The Biden administration has also expressed support for salmon in the Columbia basin.
A report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee and released last year found the Lower Snake’s benefits could be replaced for between $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion.
The report calculated the costs of replacing the dams’ benefits in current dollars and analyzed them spread out over a 50-year time frame.
The report’s analysis of major areas of benefit from the dams and impact of their removal include barge transportation for 100 miles from the Tri-Cities to Lewiston, Idaho; hydroelectric generation that boosts the reliability of the power grid and provides enough energy to power a city the size of Seattle; irrigation, mostly for very large farms; and tourism and recreation. But continuing to run the dams on the river runs the risk of pushing native salmon and steelhead to extinction. It’s an unacceptable cost, Murray and Inslee said.
A report by the Bonneville Power Administration found replacing the four lower Snake River dams while meeting clean energy goals and reliability is possible but comes at a substantial cost. It would require 2,300 to 4,300 megawatts of replacement resources for an annual cost of about $415 million by 2045, the report states.
Jay Hesse, the Nez Perce director of biological services, illustrated the poor outlook for Snake salmon by pouring a few drops of the water from one pitcher into an empty jar during a video-conference meeting led by the Salmon Orca Project earlier this year.
“This pitcher of water has 1,000 milliliters of water, it’s full. If that represents the historic abundance of spring, summer Chinook that come back to the Snake Basin,” Hesse said. “That’s what supported tribal culture, subsistence harvest throughout the entire usual and accustomed area.”
Over the last five years, he said, the average number of fish coming back — non-hatchery spring and summer Chinook — has been 8,000. He poured eight milliliters into another jar.
“If I swirl it around, I can get it to cover the bottom of the jar,” Hesse said. “But as soon as I stopped swirling it doesn’t even cover the bottom of that one liter jar. That’s how dire we are.”
The Nez Perce Tribe more than two decades ago adopted a resolution advocating removal of the four Lower Snake dams to help revive salmon runs nearing extinction.
A coalition of fishing and environmental groups, the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon sued federal agencies over the 2020 Supplemental Biological Opinion on operating the Federal Columbia River Power System, arguing it failed to live up to the protections for native salmon and steelhead guaranteed under the Endangered Species Act.
The lawsuit was put on hold when the parties agreed to enter mediation more than a year ago. They have until August to come up with a comprehensive solution to decades of litigation.
Wheeler said federal officials must come to terms with the fact they have an obligation to the tribe that gave them more than 13 million acres of their homeland in exchange for the right to continue their way of life.
“I look at river systems as the same as our blood that flows through us,” Wheeler said. “When you dam it and block it, it creates problems … Like the ability for platelets to move through your body, the salmon should be able to move through the river.”
Many of today’s hydroelectric projects were built before modern environmental laws and before tribal consultation was a consideration. Now, as many age and salmon runs plummet toward extinction, they’re held to a higher standard.
In the Snake River, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recommended removing the four lower dams as an “essential” step needed to rebuild the salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia basin.
The report explains that large-scale dam removal projects on the Elwha, Nooksack, Hood, Wind, White Salmon, Sandy, and Rogue rivers “have all resulted in broader and quicker biological and physical benefits to local and regional riverscapes than expected.”
Meanwhile, Washington’s hydropower production has struggled under low snowpack and record low stream flows. In 2019, the state had to rely on out of state coal-fired power generation to meet needs hydropower couldn’t fulfill. And flows are projected to get lower.
Under the current warm and dry conditions and flow constraints from dams and other barriers, some Washington rivers are anticipated to become uninhabitable for salmon and steelhead by the end of the century.
The Lower Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. The four dams built on the Lower Snake were the last built in the Federal Columbia River Power System, with Lower Granite, the inland-most dam on the Lower Snake River, completed in 1975.
The federal system comprises 31 dams in the basin that together generate a third of the power in the Northwest.
The dams are operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Bonneville Power Administration sells power from the dams to the Western U.S. grid, including customers throughout the Northwest.