Washington state launches study that could lead to tearing down Snake River dams

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray pledged to keep open minds as they announced Friday a joint federal and state process to see if there are reasonable means to replace the benefits of the lower Snake River Dams.

They expect to make recommendations no later than the end of July.

Breaching or taking down the four dams from Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities to Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, Idaho, has been proposed as a way to help endangered salmon.

Inslee foreshadowed the announcement at a Washington Conservation Voters event earlier this month, saying he and Murray would be launching a rigorous, robust and fast assessment of what would be required to replace the benefits of the four dams.

“Both of us believe that, for the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impacts of breach can, or cannot, be mitigated,” Inslee and Murray said in a joint announcement Friday.

They said neither have made a decision on whether there are reasonable ways to replace the benefits of the dams in order to support tearing them down as part of the salmon recovery strategy for the Snake River.

In the coming months they will talk to a wide range of individuals and groups across the Pacific Northwest with varying views on dam breaching, they said.

“This will include close consultation and advisement by treaty-protected tribes whose unique perspectives and sovereignty each of us deeply appreciates,” they said.

Conservation and fisheries groups have called for the dams to be removed to help rebuild populations of salmon that must navigate eight hydroelectric dams between the Idaho and Washington border and the Pacific Ocean.

“Saving our salmon is absolutely essential to Washington state’s economy and cultural heritage. It is an urgent undertaking that we are fully committed to,” Inslee and Murray said.

Breaching focus questioned

But Northwest RiverPartners said it was concerned by Murray and Inslee’s apparent focus on the lower Snake River dams, framing the issue as whether their services can be replaced rather than whether they should be replaced.

“With massive declines in chinook salmon survival up and down in the Pacific Coast over the past 50 years tied to climate change and a warming ocean, the idea of breaching major carbon-free generation infrastructure just doesn’t make sense,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of the nonprofit representing utilities and agriculture and shipping interests that depend on the Snake River dams.

Calls to breach the dams for salmon recovery lack the scientific rigor necessary for such a drastic decision, he said.

“There is still so much we don’t know about salmon and we risk doing more long-term harm than good by breaching the dams, given the context of climate change,” Miller said.

Pacific Northwest Waterways Association pointed out that a $40 million environmental study completed last year concluded that breaching the dams was not in the best interest of society from the perspective of climate, costs and societal benefits, especially given the uncertainty of benefits for salmon.

The association said that shifting shipping from barges on the lower Snake River to trucks and rail would increase carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions annually equivalent to a coal-fired power plant operating for five or six years.

But a coalition of a dozen conservation, fishing and additional groups with similar views on breaching the dams praised Inslee and Murray’s plan.

They said the science on preventing extinction is clear.

Support for breaching dams

“Salmon and steelhead need free-flowing, cold water, which requires removal of the four lower Snake River dams,” they said in a statement.

Nancy Hirsh, executive director of Northwest Energy Coalition said she is confident that energy services provided by the four Snake River hydroelectric dams can be reliably and affordably replaced with effective planning.

“The pressure on the Snake River dams just hit an all-time high” with Inslee and Murray joining to look at replacing their services, said Guilia Good Stefani, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.

“This is a giant step forward for the tribes that have kept the fish on life support all these years and for all of us who care deeply about justice and living in a rich and climate-resilient Northwest,” she said.

The planned quick turnaround of the evaluation recognizes the urgency of the need to save salmon, said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

“Preserving a place in the Water Resources Development Act to deauthorize the dams makes sense. Endless study does not,” he said.

Murray said she would ensure that key elements of a salmon recovery strategy that comes from cooperation between the state and federal governments are included as part of any Army Corps of Engineers strategy in the Fiscal 2022 Water Resources Development Act.

That could include possible analysis by federal agencies of breaching the four lower Snake River dams as part of a solution, she and Inslee said.

The federal analysis would be necessary to pursue further action with the dams, potentially including breaching, to be included in a future Water Resources Development Act.

“Without this critical step, options that may be essential to salmon restoration could be excluded from the most timely and viable federal legislative vehicle,” they said.

Inslee and Murray said they would be working with both Democrats and Republicans to assess how benefits of the dams could be replaced.

‘Something fishy’

However, Washington state’s Republican U.S. representatives — Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jamie Herrera Beutler — were skeptical.

“It is becoming more and more clear that the public and stakeholders who rely on the Columbia Snake River System have been shut out of conversations between the Biden administration, federal agencies and groups whose sole mission is to breach the Lower Snake River dams,” they said in a joint statement Friday.

It appears “suspicious at best” that a settlement announced Thursday would halt litigation related to operating eight Columbia and Snake river dams until July, the same time the state and federal review of dam benefits is to be completed, they said.

“This appears to be nothing more than a predetermined backdoor deal in the making ... ,” they said. “There is something fishy going on, and it’s not just the promising salmon returns we are seeing on the lower Snake River.”

A process for written comments to be submitted for the joint federal and state process has yet to be announced.