Democratic Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, announced last week that they’d both get behind the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River that impede the migration of salmon and steelhead into the Snake River basin of Oregon and Idaho.
But their support is conditional.
“The state and federal governments should implement a plan to replace the benefits of the Lower Snake River Dams to enable breaching to move forward,” Inslee said in a statement released jointly with Murray that includes recommendations he and Murray put forth after a months-long joint state-federal assessment that eyes salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake river systems. In other words, he and Murray would support dam removal if the carbon-free power they produce can be replaced by other green energy sources. Additionally, their joint report declares that they won’t support breaching the dams until the economic-impact issues of such a move were “mitigated or replaced.”
That’s a pretty big “if.” Depending on who you ask, the “benefits” of the lower Snake River dams are either minimal or incredibly numerous. But the report is a step in the right direction–as recently as last year, Murray wouldn’t touch the dam removal issue because it’s a political hot potato in her state. To have her and Inslee recognizing that dam removal is likely the only solution to saving salmon and steelhead in the beleaguered Columbia basin is significant.
Further, this gives the effort to remove the salmon-killing dams from the Snake some bipartisan flavor. Inslee and Murray are both Democrats, and they are now at least partially aligned with U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, who two years ago put forth dam removal as the only viable solution to saving salmon in the basin.
Yes, the report issued by Inslee and Murray is conditional, but an optimist might look at it and believe it shifts the dam removal dialog significantly. They might also think it gives every agency and organization working on dam removal a roadmap to accomplishing their ultimate goal.
“You want to take out four dams?” the report seemingly asks. “Get busy on the economics then, folks.”
“Replacement of clean energy benefits will require substantial additional work and investment,” the report reads. “The four Lower Snake River Dams provide the region with reliable, dispatchable, and carbon-free energy. Notwithstanding, today, there are clean energy generating resources moving their way through regional approval processes that if built, will replace the generating capacity of these dams – severalfold, by some estimates. Replacing the characteristics of energy provided by hydropower, however, requires energy technologies that must continue to be developed.”
Indeed, the Snake and Columbia basins are already bristling with wind turbines, and more would be needed to replace the cheap power produced at each of the four dams. Additionally, solar power development is underway in the basin. It’s a doable proposition – the four dams on the lower Snake River produce only 4 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electric power. It’s a challenge, but not as daunting as some might think. In fact, studies conducted in recent years claim that replacing the power from the dams is not only feasible, but could be accomplished relatively inexpensively with wind, solar and geothermal energy sources. What’s more, replacing the dams’ electricity production with renewable sources would increase, not decrease, power generation reliability. Unfortunately, completely replacing the lost power before dams are removed requires one thing that the Snake River salmon don’t have. Time.
The Murray-Inslee declaration addresses other issues that would need to be satisfied if the pair of Washington elected officials are to lend their support to dam breaching.
“There are also numerous categories of replacement strategies – for agriculture and irrigation, outdoor recreation, transportation, and more – that the independent consultant report demonstrated are not yet sufficiently developed from a technical or financial standpoint to implement,” the report reads.
Basically, the report includes what Inslee’s office describes as three “themes.” From an Inslee news release:
- Status quo is not an option. Changing economic, energy and climate conditions require leaders to plan for changing circumstances in the Columbia Basin region during the coming decades.
- Saving salmon and other iconic species in the Columbia Basin is imperative. The scientific review affirms that breaching these specific dams offers the greatest benefit to the salmon.
- The impacts and benefits of breaching the dams are significant, but they can and must be mitigated or replaced. Until the energy and economic benefits of the dams are replaced or mitigated, breaching is not a feasible or responsible option.
“Inaction is the greatest ally of extinction and (the) report from Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee provides a critical roadmap of the actions necessary to save imperiled salmon populations,” said Colin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Now it's essential that we transform these commitments into action, including breaching the Lower Snake River dams, to ensure we restore abundant salmon populations, fulfill treaty obligations to Columbia River Tribes, and revitalize the Northwest’s economy for future generations.”
Indeed, the worst thing that could be done to save salmon in the Snake and Columbia is nothing. Yet, while the reports puts salmon advocates on notice if they want support from two senior elected officials in the state where the dams reside, it also creates something of a “hurry up and wait” scenario. The report clearly lays the challenge of breaching the four dams at the feet of the federal government. And let’s be honest, the feds haven’t had much success with salmon recovery plans over the last 20 years, spending more than $17 billion on the effort and recording exactly zero success.
Truth be told, salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers might have 20 years left. Or they might have 10. The Inslee-Murray plan to have the feds replace and mitigate the economic benefits the dams provide before a single dam can come out is a politically safe position that leaves a lot of wiggle room for bad actors in the scenario to sit on their hands … for that “inaction” that O’Mara warns of.
The salmon are running out of time. While O’Mara and other conservation group CEOs are generally inclined to say nice things about the Inslee-Murray plan and mark it down as progress, it’s really not. It’s just another shell game … an endless “if, then” loop. The salmon are running out of time, and they don’t really care if all the folks who enjoy the economic benefits of a captive river get their share before a single dam is breached.
The longer the dams remain, the darker the future for the fish.