Study Looks at Benefits and Liabilities of Snake River Dams
News, Intermountain Farm and Ranch 1/3/2020
SPOKANE, Wash. - Four federal hydroelectric dams along the
Snake River in Washington state bring both benefits and
liabilities to the region, and there is no clear consensus
in the state on whether the giant structures should be
removed or retained, a new report said.
The state Legislature last spring appropriated $750,000 to
study the dams, which are blamed by many for declining
salmon runs in the Columbia-Snake river system. The salmon
are a key food source for killer whales, which are also
The report is intended to help Washington lawmakers decide
how to respond to an upcoming federal review of the dams and
whether they should be removed. That court-ordered review is
expected to be released in February.
The report released Friday included data from interviews
with 100 people and groups. But it did not include any
recommendations and did not look at impacts outside of
"Salmon, orca, agriculture and energy are fundamental to
Washington's past and future,'' the report said, noting the
four dams have touched on all these issues since they were
constructed more than four decades ago.
The dams create winners and losers, according to the report,
which was prepared as part of investigations to see if
removing the dams would provide more salmon for Southern
Resident orcas to eat.
The report found there are significant differences among
Washington residents on the impacts of breaching the dams.
Dam supporters feel the "coast'' is telling eastern
Washington communities what to do in a way that lacks
respect, the report said.
"More information is needed to create opportunities for
greater understanding,'' the report said.
four dams are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and
Lower Granite, and they are located on the Snake River
between the Tri-Cities of Washington and Lewiston, Idaho.
The four dams generate roughly enough power to supply the
city of Seattle for a year, and allow navigation of barges
between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities, and eventually to
All species of salmon in the Snake River are listed as
threatened or endangered and the dams are the biggest
man-made obstacles they face, the report said.
The dams block fish migration, change river conditions and
reduce the survival rate of fish, the report said. That
creates losers among fishing communities and Indian tribes
who depend on salmon.
Supporters of breaching the dams say it is the only method
that has not been tried to increase salmon populations, the
report said. About $17 billion has been spent on other
efforts to increase salmon runs, the report said, “without
reversing the downward population trend.”
Supporters of breaching the dams say the power they provide
primarily acts as a reserve supply, and the electricity is
generally not used to meet primary energy demands.
But people who support keeping the dams say losing the power
would hurt the state's goal of being carbon free by 2045,
especially as the population grows and coal plants are
Breaching the dams would also eliminate the use of barges to
transport agricultural products down the river, the report
said. Barges are cleaner and cheaper than truck or rail
transportation, the report said.
The dams provide irrigation water for about 47,000 acres of
farmland, and that benefit would also be lost if the dams
are breached, the report said.
Supporters of breaching the dams say it would be important
to make farmers whole, so they do not suffer economic
losses, the report said.
People who want to keep the dams contend the loss of barging
"would have disastrous ramifications for farmers,'' the
Removing the dams would result in the loss of some
recreational activities, such as swimming beaches, the
report said. But it would also provide new whitewater
recreation opportunities, the report said.
Those who want to breach the dams contend the cost of
maintaining the giant structures will continue to increase
and they will become cost-ineffective over time, the report
“Although differences remain deep, for each issue there also
are clear opportunities to increase understanding,'' the
“There is both hope and despair about what comes next and
the potential for progress,'' the report said.
The environmental group American Rivers said the report is a
reminder of shared values.
"We want a future with clean energy, thriving agriculture
and salmon runs that honor tribal treaty rights and support
strong communities,'' Wendy McDermott of American Rivers
said in a press release.
The report is "an honest look at how we've managed the Snake
River and the true cost of declining salmon runs,'' said Tom
France of the National Wildlife Federation.
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