Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners —a not-for-profit organization whose members include consumer-owned utilities, ports and businesses from across the northwestern United States. NWRP is focused on raising awareness about how the northwest’s hydropower system betters local communities and the natural environment
If you’re someone who follows salmon issues as closely as I do, you’ll recognize Snake River salmon receive an incredible amount of media attention. In local, national and even international news outlets, we see a story repeated, again and again, that implies Snake River salmon are facing an unusually high risk of extinction because of the dams they pass on their journey to the ocean. The sheer repetition of the story adds to its perceived credibility. Why else would these particular salmon get so much media coverage if salmon nearly everywhere are doing about the same?
Yet two major scientific reports confirm Snake River salmon are not an anomaly. In 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that marine fish populations worldwide have plummeted due to unabated ocean warming caused by climate change over the past 50 years.
In 2020, Canadian researchers showed that chinook salmon populations have declined by roughly 65% along the Pacific Coast of North America over the last 50 years, whether or not dams are present. This conclusion was confirmed by the Independent Science Advisory Board, which acts like the National Academies of Sciences for Northwest salmon research.
Ironically, many of the groups advocating breaching of the lower Snake River dams are located in the Puget Sound area, where chinook salmon populations are doing just as poorly. Not only that, but Puget Sound chinook salmon are much more important to the diet of Southern Resident orcas. So, why not fix what’s going on in their own backyard? Why the intense focus on the Snake River dams?
Perhaps it’s because the lower Snake River dams were controversial before they were built. At that time, in the ‘60s, they showed a very modest net financial benefit, and people were already worried about meager salmon returns.
But times have changed. It’s now widely accepted that climate change — both in the marine and freshwater environment — is the primary threat to salmon populations, which makes removing productive zero-carbon resources, like the lower Snake dams, a step in the wrong direction for salmon.
Additionally, significant empirical data from as recently as this summer shows that free-flowing sections of the river system got hotter — and therefore were more dangerous to salmon — than those sections protected by dam reservoirs.
In talking with dam breaching advocates, much of their anti-dam advocacy comes from a sincere desire to do something for salmon. Frankly, the thought of waiting for the world to reverse climate change can leave a person feeling helpless. People want to get involved and make a more immediate, more tangible difference.
I’m all for taking action too, but that action cannot come at the expense of risking lives, public safety and the socioeconomic health of our communities. Nor should it come by significantly increasing our carbon footprint. As someone who has spent 30 years in the electric utility world, I can vouch that these negative outcomes are all bonafide risks if we remove the lower Snake dams.
As an example, 800 people died across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia during this summer’s heat dome event. As tragic and shocking as this loss of life was, it could have been much worse if we’d had a widespread power outage that would have left the entire region without air conditioning or access to cooling shelters.
We are reminded our call to action shouldn’t be “let’s do something.” It should be “let’s do something responsible.”
Whether it’s repairing estuaries, planting trees or reducing pollution, there are things everyone can do to make a difference instead of pursuing irreparable and harmful dam breaching efforts.
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