North America’s largest Pacific watershed, the Columbia River Basin, is in the midst of an environmental and energy crisis so severe that the most obvious, yet hotly contested, antidote — removal of four dams on the Columbia’s longest tributary, the Snake River — is gaining traction.
The hydropower dams have been controversial since before their completion, between 1962 and 1975, because of their disastrous impact on salmon and the other 137 species that are part of the salmon food chain. Most of the Columbia Basin’s 250-plus dams have played roles in the salmon’s decline, but the four lower Snake River dams are prime targets for removal because their economic value has diminished and their absence would inordinately benefit salmon.
Even though the dams include ladders and other fish passage mechanisms, they have made salmon passage to and from the sea so difficult that populations have plummeted from already low mid-20th century levels. The dams effectively prevented all but a few salmon from carrying out some of nature’s most astonishing migrations, reaching spawning grounds in Idaho’s Snake River Basin as far as 900 river miles from the Pacific Coast and more than a mile in elevation. As a result, all three Snake River salmon species are endangered or threatened. Nevertheless, federal agencies and regional politicians have steadfastly declined to consider removing the Snake dams.
A study found that removal of the dams would result in a two- to three-fold increase in salmon on the Snake River.
Now orcas off the coast of Washington are dying of starvation, the direct result of the near-absence of chinook salmon, the foundation of their diet. A whale mother that seemed to mourn her lost calf by carrying its carcass on her back for 17 days as she swam hundreds of miles drew so much international attention that a Seattle Times headline cited “the grief felt around the world.” Biologists have observed orcas with “peanut head,”a misshapen head and neck brought on by starvation. The three local orca pods are down to 73 animals, from a recent peak of 99 in the late 1980s. Given a dearth of reproducing females and a paucity of recent births, the biologists fear that their population has dropped below a sustainable level.
The orcas’ plight has refocused attention on the Snake River dams, for their removal offers the most likely prospect of generating chinook — and, in turn, orca — recovery. Even with its dams, the Snake River watershed supports 70 percent of the habitat available for chinook in the entire Columbia Basin — no other dam removals in the Columbia Basin would open as much habitat.
The case for keeping the dams has been weakened as solar and wind energy and natural gas have supplanted hydroelectricity as the Pacific Northwest’s cheapest sources of power. That development has sent the Bonneville Power Administration, the long-tentacled federal agency that markets electricity from the Snake River dams and 27 other federally owned Columbia Basin dams, into a tailspin. Nevertheless, Bonneville and the dams’ many supporters continue to resist removal because, they say, the hydropower system and the Pacific Northwest economy are inseparable.
The lower Snake River dams have enabled large quantities of grain to be shipped by barge from Lewiston, Idaho all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River, 465 miles away, making the ninth-largest city in the nation’s 39th most populous state the West Coast’s farthest-inland port. But in the last two decades, freight volume on the Snake corridor has declined by 70 percent, as farmers have turned to rail and trucks to move their grain to the West Coast, and container shipments dropped from 18,000 a year in 2000 to zero in 2017.
Last year, 32 Pacific Northwest salmon biologists and six whale scientists signed letters to Washington Govenor Jay Inslee, advocating removal of the four dams. Dam decommissioning, the whale scientists wrote, “will re-establish productive access” for chinook and other salmon to more than 5,000 miles of high-quality habitat in the Snake Basin. Inslee hired a consulting team in August to conduct an “engagement process” with Snake River Basin stakeholders that is supposed to result in a recommendation in February on whether to remove the dams.
Mike Simpson, a rare environmentally-minded, climate change-believing conservative Republican Congressman from Idaho, broke ranks with other Congress members in the region last April by declaring in a speech, “I am going to stay alive long enough to see salmon return to healthy populations in Idaho.” Though the only way that can happen is through dam removal, Simpson didn’t quite endorse that option, but he made clear that it should be considered.
Recent studies have buttressed the case for removing the dams. A 2017 study by the Fish Passage Center, a nonpartisan, government-funded Columbia Basin research group, found that removal of the four Snake River dams would result in a two- to three-fold increase in salmon abundance in the Snake River Basin, even though the fish would still have to negotiate four more dams downstream, on the Columbia River.
Another study published in July by ECONorthwest, an independent economic consulting firm, conducted cost-benefit analyses that the report said “strongly justify” removing the dams. The study is notable for its inclusion of “non-use values,” assessments of the worth to local residents of a thriving, free-flowing Snake River in which salmon runs rebound. According to four surveys conducted for the study, Pacific Northwest households were willing to pay an average of $40 each for the dams’ removal, much higher than the $8.44 per household that the study concluded justified removal. But proponents of retaining the dams said the study’s methodology was faulty and that respondents overstate how much they would hypothetically pay for a promised result like dam removal.
Spring chinook spawning in Idaho.
Daniel Malarkey, a report co-author, maintains, however, “These dams have reached the end of their useful lives. They are going to take a lot more additional investment if they’re going to be operated for another 30 years, and when you factor in their true costs, including their effect on fish, they are no longer the low-cost resource. We have low-carbon and zero-carbon alternatives that don’t make fish go extinct.”
For now, the dams’ fate rests with Bonneville, which markets more than a quarter of the Pacific Northwest’s hydroelectricity and owns about three-fourths of its transmission lines. Beginning in the 1940s, Bonneville’s distribution of low-cost electricity generated by the mammoth Grand Coulee and other main-stem Columbia River dams gave the Pacific Northwest a competitive advantage that stimulated its economy and seemed to signify dams’ endless bounty. Now, however, the agency faces financial collapse. As Elliott Mainzer, its administrator, stated publicly last year, Bonneville has experienced a “bloodbath.” “I’m not in a panic mode,” he said, “but I am in a very, very significant sense of urgency mode.”
The 21st century has caught up with Bonneville, as the cost of renewable energy and natural gas has dropped below the price of Bonneville’s hydroelectricity. Bonneville historically maintained low prices for its contracted customers, chiefly 134 Pacific Northwest public utility districts, by selling its surplus power at much higher rates to California. But when the state began embracing solar energy in the last decade, the going price for Bonneville’s surplus power dropped sharply.
Bonneville regards the lower Snake River dams as vital to its operations, comprising a quarter of the system’s electricity reserves.
As a result, Bonneville has been forced to raise rates it charges its contracted customers by about 30 percent over the last eight years. Those customers now pay Bonneville more than $35 per megawatt-hour; were it not for their contractual obligations, they could buy electricity on the open market for prices that over the last year averaged less than $30 a megawatt-hour and occasionally dropped to below zero. The public utility districts’ contracts expire in 2028, when many may opt for cheaper electricity somewhere else. Bonneville might then be forced to raise its rates even more, driving away still more customers and intensifying the “death spiral” that utilities increasingly fear.
A Bonneville spokesman said in an email that its electricity prices aren’t “entirely comparable” to open market prices because both Bonneville’s prices and its electricity supply are more stable than electricity purchased on the open market. As for the raising of rates that would trigger a death spiral, he cited Bonneville’s 2018-2023 strategic plan, which calls for “holding program costs at or below the rate of inflation through 2028.”
Bonneville regards the lower Snake River dams as vital to its operations, comprising a quarter of the system’s electricity reserves. Those reserves are needed, it says, to counteract high winter energy demand and the variability of the system’s more intermittent wind power. In addition, the dams’ hydropower provides needed support for the system’s western Montana-to-eastern Washington transmission lines.
But Bonneville’s prospects aren’t likely to improve. Its six dams on the main stem of the Columbia River provide all the electricity its contracted customers need; the electricity generated by its 25 other dams, including the four lower Snake River dams, is all surplus. Given the increasing availability of wind and solar energy, Bonneville probably won’t find new customers for that electricity, says Anthony Jones, an independent economist at Rocky Mountain Econometrics who has studied Bonneville’s finances for more than two decades.
Instead, Bonneville has become the nation’s most highly leveraged utility. It spent down its financial reserves from nearly a billion dollars in 2008 to about $5 million in 2017, and it accumulated $15 billion in debt, on which it spent $1.56 billion on interest and related fees in fiscal year 2018. Most of its dams are at least half-a-century old, and will require billions of dollars to repair; the cost of rehabilitating 21 aging Snake River dam turbines alone is likely to exceed $1 billion.
Bonneville is also required to spend large sums on Columbia Basin fish and wildlife mitigation to make up for the environmental damage the dams cause. From 2008 to 2017, that effort cost Bonneville $727 million a year, about a fourth of its annual budget. Much of the mitigation money has been spent on the basin’s 178 salmon hatcheries, yet the hatcheries have amounted to an abysmal boondoggle. No salmon species is in better condition than before hatcheries were introduced, and a mountain of scientific evidence indicates that hatchery salmon not only don’t support wild salmon, but reduce chances of their recovery. The salmon recovery effort has cost Bonneville ratepayers more than $16 billion since 1980, about a quarter of their electricity bills. That makes it the nation’s most expensive endangered species recovery failure. According to Jones, salmon and other wildlife mitigation efforts attributable to the four Snake River dams have cost between a third and a fourth of Bonneville’s total mitigation expenditures.
On top of this, dam removal advocates say, the Snake River dams are both unneeded and unprofitable. Their hydroelectricity comprises between 5 and 13 percent of Bonneville’s total electricity output, depending on season, but the last time the dams’ power helped meet Bonneville’s contracted customer demand was in 2009, according to Linwood Laughy, an advocate of removing the Snake River dams who follows Bonneville’s financial activities. Since then, all their electricity has been surplus, and it’s the price of that surplus electricity that has plummeted.
“Even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about the fish,” Jones said, “there is good justification for taking the dams down purely on a cost savings basis.”
To be sure, the dams’ removal would harm farmers who still rely on the navigation system. Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, which represents 1,800 farmers, said 60 percent of her members use the barge system. Barges, she said, are far more efficient than rail or trucks, cost less, and emit fewer greenhouse gases.
But while navigation’s economic footprint grows increasingly smaller, the system’s impacts on salmon remain large. From the time they leave the Idaho spawning grounds where they were born and arrive at the ocean, they run a gauntlet of eight dams on the Snake and the Columbia. Before dams blocked the river, juvenile salmon, known as smolts, rode the current to the Pacific Ocean. Now they must swim through 325 miles of inhospitably warm slack water, using energy that ought to be devoted to physical preparation for salt water and ocean predators. The result is that they arrive at the Columbia’s mouth undersized and unprepared for the ocean’s rigors.
In 1993, environmental groups sued Bonneville and other federal agencies for violating the Endangered Species Act in their treatment of Snake River salmon, beginning a cycle of litigation that continues to this day. On at least five occasions, federal judges ordered the agencies to consider removing the lower Snake River dams, and each time the agencies responded with delay and diversions, once going so far as to call the dams immutable parts of the landscape and therefore not subject to the Endangered Species Act.
“Dam removal is another example of Seattle-based interests seeking to disrupt our way of life in Eastern Washington,” says a Congresswoman.
Instead of removing the dams, the agencies have installed screens to prevent smolts from being pummeled by the dams’ turbines. They have placed water tanks inside barges and trucks and transported smolts in them to bypass the dams. They have built water-filled fish elevators to improve the survival of adult salmon swimming upstream. And they have installed at least seven hatcheries that release millions of smolts each year into the Snake. None of this has significantly helped native salmon recover. As Jones told me, dam removal is the one untried option, and the only one with high promise of benefiting both salmon and Bonneville’s finances.
Bonneville is deeply entrenched in the activities of the region’s outdoors-minded residents, as it funds Congressionally-mandated programs for dams, hatcheries, river restoration, Native American tribes, and a nuclear power plant. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican Congress member from eastern Washington, spoke for many of Bonneville’s supporters in July, when she said, “For me, dam breaching is off the table… Bottom line: dams and fish coexist.” She denounced the ECONorthwest report as “another example of Seattle-based interests seeking to disrupt our way of life in Central and Eastern Washington.”
For now, Snake River dam removal faces long odds, but for the first time there’s a growing sense that it will happen sooner or later, once Bonneville comes to terms with the dams’ diminished worth. Whether that will occur in time to avert orca and salmon extinctions remains unknown.