Breach the four lower Snake River dams (Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor). Breaching removes the earthen portion of a dam and additional shoreline to allow the river to bypass the concrete infrastructure. The powerhouse and other infrastructure would remain in place and be non-operational.
In about two months the Trump Administration will tell us what it thinks about breaching the four lower Snake River dams. The news will come in the form of a draft Environmental Impact Statement from federal agencies that is due February 2020.
With the coming draft EIS, it’s no surprise various interests are already turning up the volume on whether the dams should stay or go. Therefore, one might think we are approaching a turning point in Columbia River Basin salmon recovery.
That’s doubtful. I am guessing we will see a status quo draft EIS proposing some important changes in dam operations, but far short of dam breaching.
Federal agencies, under court order, are now finishing their analysis of five alternatives — a suite of measures — intended to protect ESA-listed salmon and steelhead that traverse the Columbia and Snake river dams.
One of those is a no-action alternative that would run the Federal Columbia River Power System under 2016 rules, effectively making no changes to operations that federal District Court Judge Michael H. Simon already has said are not good enough.
The analysis also takes a look at four other alternatives, or Multiple Objective Measures.
Not surprisingly, the one that is getting the most attention is Multiple Objective 3 – dam breaching.
There’s no question in my mind that returning the lower Snake River to a more natural river will boost salmon and steelhead returns to Idaho, though by how much is a great unknown. Four fewer mainstem passage obstacles and a cooler river should produce more fish for the Snake, Clearwater, Salmon rivers and tributaries. Much of this central Idaho and northeast Oregon country remains high quality habitat for anadromous fish. Presumably the agencies’ draft EIS will have something to say about whether dam breaching will bring home enough Snake River sockeye, steelhead, and chinook to remove these populations from the endangered species list.
The agencies have suggested the preferred alternative to be unveiled in February will likely be a mix of measures from the four Multiple Objectives.
For example, we can expect to see some proposed improvements for fish passage, such as additional surface passage structures, lamprey passage and enhancements at adult fish ladders. There could also be some proposed changes to river flow and the amount of water spilled at the dams to aid juvenile fish passage.
Yet, the same imperatives that push basin salmon recovery into the status quo box, despite Judge Simon’s call, remain today.
Breaching these dams would require a political will to engage in a substantial economic restructuring. As we all know, such an act will impact Northwest energy production, irrigation, and transportation. It will impact agriculture, food processing, ports, roads and rails. So it’s not just breaching dams that’s on the table, but also mitigating for an altered economic landscape.
There is no evidence that such political will exists to make that leap for the Idaho fish. It’s not a priority for the Northwest congressional delegation, which would need to take the lead to secure the authorizations and funding necessary to make dam breaching a reality.
In fact , earlier this year U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), the Northwest’s most powerful politician, said at a Tri-Cities meeting that she would “protect” the dams. “I did not call for, nor would I call for, the removal of the Snake River dams,” she said.
And though Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has endorsed and funded a task force to study the impacts of dam breaching, there is currently no push from Northwest capitals for making such a move.
So no, I am not expecting a “major overhaul” during this round of Columbia Basin salmon recovery. I see instead a fairly routine, though detailed, EIS accompanied by yet another “biological opinion” that will identify sources of wild fish mortality caused by the federal hydrosystem and offer alternatives that may or may not reduce such losses.
And because a substantial number of people believe the science points to removing those lower Snake River dams as the best way to keep Idaho’s salmon and steelhead from going extinct, I expect more litigation rather than a significant turning point.
— Bill Crampton, [email protected]