By Betsy Emery, Organizer and Outreach Coordinator and Alix Soliman, Operations Manager
T he lower Snake River dams were built based on two predominant assumptions: (1) dams are the most viable form of producing renewable energy and (2) dams facilitate barge transport, which is the best way to ship goods to market. We must determine whether these assumptions are still true today in order to promote a dialogue about crafting solutions to replace the lower Snake River dams.
Juvenile salmon born in Idaho must successfully travel through as many as eight Federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers during their 400+ mile migration to the ocean, an experience that causes substantial stress and injury. Approximately 11,000 steelhead and 7,000 chinook survived their migration up the lower Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho in 2018. This is substantially short of the goal of having 100,000 steelhead and 125,000 chinook complete this journey every year, which are the minimum numbers of fish needed to return for recovery of these populations to be possible.
Between 1994 and 2017, an average of only 1.4% of the wild steelhead that were spawned in the upper Snake River basin returned the following year, while a minimum of 2% is necessary to maintain the existing population size which is threatened by extinction. Scientists urge that a 4 - 6% return is necessary to actually recover these wild populations.
Assumption #1: Hydroelectricity is the most viable form of renewable energy
Hydropower has long been touted as one of the best forms of renewable energy in the Pacific Northwest, given the abundant supply of flowing water. This mentality has resulted in the construction of more than 400 dams in the Columbia River Basin. Historically, these facilities have generated a surplus of hydroelectric power that was exported regionally, especially to California, but demand declined as other sources of renewable energy have become more affordable. In total, the four dams on the lower Snake River contribute only 4% of Bonneville Power Administrations’ entire energy portfolio, an average of 1,000 megawatt hours per year that is predominantly stored as reserve energy.
There have been extraordinary advancements in renewable energy technology and infrastructure since the Snake River dams were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. Solar arrays and wind farms are now prevalent throughout eastern Washington, Oregon and western Idaho, which generate 1.5x as much energy for the Pacific Northwest as all four of the lower Snake River dams combined (2,500 average megawatt hours versus 1,000 average megawatt hours). In Oregon alone, the amount of wind energy has more than doubled since 2010, providing almost 12% of the state’s energy portfolio in 2018. While solar energy currently generates less than 1% of Oregon’s energy supply, the installation of solar arrays has increased exponentially since 2010 and is expected to generate more of the state’s supply of renewable energy.
The 2018 NW Energy Coalition study concludes that a “portfolio of clean energy resources, including solar, wind, energy efficiency, demand response, and energy storage, can effectively replace the most critical power attributes the four [lower Snake River] dams contribute to the Northwest region… dam replacement using clean resources is achievable from both a technical planning regional reliability / adequacy standpoint, and from a resources availability standpoint.”
Further, in 2019, the national Green Jobs report found that there are significantly more green jobs in wind and solar energy in Washington and Oregon (~15,300 jobs) than “low impact hydroelectric” (~1,400 jobs).
While hydropower was once the most viable form of renewable energy in the Pacific Northwest, it is clear that many salmon-friendly ways to produce affordable renewable energy have become attractive alternatives to hydropower.
Assumption #2: Dams facilitate barge transport, which is the best way to ship goods to market
Dam advocates argue that the 450-mile system of locks allows agricultural and industrial producers to ship goods without having to rely on road or rail infrastructure. Barges are able to transport as much as a 35-unit train or approximately 134 trucks. When the dams were built, many rail lines in the area were either closed or fell to disrepair due to limited maintenance, forcing farmers in the area to almost exclusively rely on the barge system.
In the early 2000s, barge shipping saw a significant decline as farmers began shifting back to rail. During its peak in 1995, over 1,200 barges traversed the lower Snake River. This number dropped to 358 in 2015. The number of loaded barges passing through Lower Granite (the dam located closest to Lewiston, Idaho) has declined by 75% since 1993. Currently, only 40% of the region’s crops are shipped via barge, most of which is wheat. At its peak in 1998, barges transported more than 9 million tons of grain downriver to market each year. More recently, barges have only transported closer to 2 million tons of grain, a 71% decrease in volume.
As farmers have transitioned to rail over the past 20 years, there has been a concerted effort to improve and repair rail infrastructure. Although removing the dams will eliminate the ability to use barge shipping, additional investments in rail transportation improvements will ease the transition in the wake of removing these dams.
A recent economic report from EcoNorthwest estimated that grain growers would pay an additional $6.2 million per year in shipping costs if they shifted from barge to truck or train. However, this number pales in comparison to the $21 million the federal government spends operating and maintaining the locks at these four dams, which could be spent instead on offsetting the cost of transportation for farmers or investing in rail infrastructure improvements. That said, the market value of Washington’s wheat and barley for the last ten years has averaged $882 million, thus, a $6.2 million increase in shipping costs represents less than 1% of their revenue.
In terms of environmental footprint, barges have long been considered a more “environmentally friendly” form of freight transportation than truck or train transport, given that barges consume less fuel per mile and emit fewer emissions. When considering emissions from transport method alone, a barge emits roughly half as much emissions as a train and one-fifth as much as a truck. However, when the methane emissions associated with slowly releasing water through reservoirs is included in the emissions calculation, barging emits more than three times that of rail. Barging simply isn’t as environmentally friendly as it was originally touted to be.
Let’s address the fish in the room
Since 1978, federal and state agencies have invested approximately $17 billion in projects to restore salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River and Snake River basins. While these projects have funded important habitat and hatchery projects, these projects have not reduced the threat of extinction that these fish face. However, there is ample evidence that removing dams results recovers salmon population.
River advocates have been successful in removing other dams for the benefit of salmon survival. In 2014, after blocking salmon and steelhead migration for over 80 years, the Elwah River dams on the Olympic peninsula in northwest Washington were removed. The river’s response was astounding; the Elwha river has welcomed an unprecedented return of Steelhead, Chinook, Coho, Chum, and Bull Trout to the area—a response so quick and substantial that it has even shocked salmon scientists and river advocates.
The political tides are shifting. Across the northwest, conversations are underway about how we can come together to reimagine a future without the lower Snake River dams. The governors of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have committed to participating in the process to identify solutions. We are working with a broad coalition of organizations to advocate for a collaborative, regionally-focused, stakeholder-driven process to remove these dams while maintaining rural livelihoods and economic opportunities.
Join us in continuing this momentum, we can’t do this without you! Get involved by signing up for our email list to receive more information about the campaign, sharing your story about what salmon and fishing means to you, or learning more about how these dams impact salmon habitat.