The Obama administration
has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) to conduct studies on the
possibility of removing four hydroelectric dams on
the Snake River in Washington state in order to
“protect” 13 species of salmon on the federal
endangered species list.
The studies were part of a new “Adaptive
Management Implementation Plan” created by a
coalition of nine government agencies (which calls
itself “the Federal Caucus”) that manages the
salmon population in the Columbia River basin. The
aims at trying to reverse a decline in the salmon
population in the Pacific Northwest.
The plan (or “biological opinion”), which was
submitted to a federal court judge in Portland,
Ore., on Sept. 15, is a revised version of a plan
originally developed by the Bush administration.
It explicitly raises the possibility of breaching
the four hydropower dams on the Snake River in
order to “save” salmon populations. The Bush-era
plan did not recommend destroying dams.
In May, U.S. District Judge James Redden had
directed the agencies to tear up their previous
plan and submit another. Redden has been critical
of past plans, dating back as far as the Clinton
administration, because they did not consider the
possibility of removing the dams.
Wild salmon swim from the ocean up the Columbia
River and its tributaries in order to spawn, but
are blocked from reaching those grounds by the
series of dams, according to a lawsuit that was
filed by the National Wildlife Federation, the Nez
Perce Indian tribe and the state of Oregon against
the Federal Columbia River Power System and the
Bonneville Power Administration.
The envronmentalists and the state have
been trying to force the government-run agencies
to allow more water to “spill” over the dams to
protect the salmon runs.
The Army Corps of Engineers “study plan” for
blowing up dams on the Lower Snake River must
be conducted by March 2010. According to Corps of
Engineers spokeswoman Nola Leyde, it will lay out
the scope of the project, a proposed schedule and
a budget to complete subsequent technical studies.
“The study basically lays a roadmap for (what it
will take) if breaching was a trigger that was
hit,” Leyde said. “It doesn’t actually look at how
you would do it or what you would do. What it does
is it looks at how, it’s more of a process, how
you would get to that process, because there are
decisions that would need to be made by Congress
-- and Congress would have to authorize.
“You’d be looking at everything from environmental
impacts to impacts on species in the area,
economic impacts, water quality, sediment,” she
Leyde noted that the Corps had previously examined
dam-breaching in a 2002
titled “Improving Salmon Passage," which found
that dam removal was unnecessary.
“The bottom line on it was that NOAA Fisheries
said it wasn’t necessary to breach the dams to
recover the (salmon) stock,” she said.
In addition, she said, the previous study had
concluded that there were “certainties in the
problems that it could cause for fish.’
NOAA has also been ordered to study dam removal.
“By December 2012,” the plan says, “NOAA
Fisheries, in coordination with the Action
Agencies will develop a life-cycle model . . . for
evaluation of the short-term, transitional and
long-term biological effects of dam-breaching.”
Asked what such a study would entail, NOAA
Fisheries spokesman Brain Gorman told CNSNews.com
simply, “I have no idea.”
He added: “I’m under the impression that, first,
the Corps of Engineers would do sort of a broad
paper on what a study would look like.”
Gorman noted that an in-depth study of dam
breaching would only be conducted if there is a
“compelling reason to do it” – that is, no other
option halts the decline in salmon population.
Opponents of dam-breaching want it left off the
table entirely, while proponents of dam removal
say that blowing up the dams should be more than a
“contingency of last resort.”
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) opposes
“I’m concerned that, bottom line, this
administration decided to put dams on the table,”
she told CNSNews.com, “and there have been some
extreme environmental organizations that have been
advocating for years that these dams be removed,
and now they have an opening to continue to
advocate for the dam removal.”
Terry Flores, executive director of the
anti-breaching group Northwest RiverPartners, also
disapproves of the government’s decision.
“We’re disappointed that this administration has
put it back on the table, even for discussion,”
she told CNSNews.com
“Dam breaching, by just keeping it on the table,
even as a contingency, fires up folks whose only
agenda is dam removal, and it really distracts the
whole region from being able to, you know, put a
hundred percent of its effort into implementing
this plan,” Flores told CNSNews.com.
Michael Garrity, Washington state conservation
director for the pro-dam-busting group American
Rivers, disagreed. He doesn’t think the new plan
goes far enough.
“We think removing the four lower Snake River dams
(is) the most elegant solution to getting big
numbers of fish back to the Columbia basin,”
Garrity told CNSNews.com.
When asked about the effects of dam removal on the
electricity supply, Garrity said: “It’s
replaceable. It’s actually only about 3 or 4
percent of the system’s generation, and . . . the
bulk of the energy that those four dams produce
tends to come at times of year when there is
surplus (energy) -- it’s sold at not real high
prices to outside of the region, because the
region doesn’t tend to need it when that
electricity is generated.”
“It’s disappointing to see the Obama
administration defending a plan with such weak
standards,” Garrity said.
Congresswoman McMorris-Rodgers disputed the idea
the energy provided by the dams was not needed or
could be easily replaced.
“The four lower Snake River dams produce five
percent of the hydropower in Washington state,”
she claimed, “and if we breached these dams, it
would take three nuclear plants, or six coal fired
plants, or fourteen gas fired plants to provide
the equal capacity.”
She also painted a brighter picture, saying that
efforts already underway to improve conditions for
salmon were actually working.
“We’ve seen where salmon and dams can coexist,”
she said. “The salmon runs on both the Snake River
and the Columbia River are up.”