Inslee, GOP spar over push to breach Snake River dams as endangered salmon populations decline

Jun 17, 2022, 10:36 AM
Lower Granite Dam, Snake River (Backbone Campaign/ Ben Herdon Photography via Flickr Creative Commons)
(Backbone Campaign/ Ben Herdon Photography via Flickr Creative Commons)

With Washington Governor Jay Inslee behind an appraisal of the environmental and economic costs associated with breaching the four lower Snake River dams, U.S. Congressional Republicans have sponsored a legislative push to preserve the dams from structural modifications.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the four lower Snake River dams that supply 1,000 average annual megawatts of electricity, helping Washington state meet its peak power loads and maintain its power grid.

Those dams also have altered the physical, chemical, hydrological, and biological composition of the Snake River, limiting the ability of salmon to spawn.

The Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams were constructed with fish ladders to facilitate fish passage. However, the dams have transformed the lower Snake River into an effective series of reservoirs and have been held responsible for a “significant impact” on spring/summer Chinook salmon populations that spawn in the Snake River, according to a consultant’s report commission by Gov. Inslee and U.S. Senator Patty Murray.

42% of Chinook populations that spawn on the Snake River are at quasi-extinction thresholds, with continued decline forecasted by the Columbia River System Operations. Forecasting models conducted by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate that breaching the lower dams would “significantly improve passage for salmon,” correlated with increased spawning rates.

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Cost estimates associated with replacing the services the dams provide range between $10.3 and $27 billion. The dam’s replacement would be contingent on Congressional approval.

“We continue to approach the question of breaching with open minds and without a predetermined decision,” Inslee and Murray wrote in a joint statement.

“We look forward to hearing much more as this document is available for public review,” referencing their request for public comment and community engagement available until July 11.

U.S. Congressional Republicans are already crying foul, nine of whom are sponsoring legislation that preserves the lower dams from structural modifications.

“Our country is officially facing the worst energy crisis since 1973. Gas prices have surpassed $5 a gallon nationwide, and there is a growing concern that blackouts this summer are imminent,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) wrote in a statement.

“Meanwhile, there are groups focused on tearing out the lower snake river dams, which we now know could cost up to $27 billion and drastically reduce energy reliability in our state. This approach is misguided, it’s alarming, and it needs to be stopped.”

Inslee and Murray’s report notes that binary framing around the issue of whether or not to breach the lower Snake River dams misses important context. Namely, summer droughts and declining snow packs have already called into question the long-term viability of the dams as recurring sources of renewable energy. Additionally, federal court orders protecting Chinook salmon from continued decline into extinction could restrict the operational function of the dams.

“In addition to changes in the system resulting from increasing spill, there will be changes in system operations to meet water temperature standards and other requirements to protect water quality for native in-river species,” the report continues.

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Inslee, GOP spar over push to breach Snake River dams as endangered salmon populations decline