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Idaho Dams Deserve a Failing Grade in Salmon Recovery 101

by Reed Burkholder
Opinion, The Idaho Statesman, October 4, 2002

Reed Burkholder If I were teaching a university class called Idaho Salmon Recovery 101, I would include a unit on power plants.

First, we would discuss standard electrical generating practices in America: burning fossil fuels and running nuclear reactors (hydropower is a small contributor to the power supply of most states).

For example, Indiana has 22,661 megawatts (MW) of electrical generating capacity, but only 89 MW of hydropower. Ohio has 28,057 MW of generating capacity. Of this, just 171 MW is hydropower. Most electricity in Indiana and Ohio comes from burning coal.

Some of the coal-fired and nuclear power plants around America are quite large. For instance, Georgia has two coal-fired behemoths that can each generate 3,500 MW. Arizona's Palo Verde nuclear power plant can pump out 4,210 MW.

Large fossil fuel plants can be quite numerous in many states. For instance, Ohio has 11 coal-fired plants larger than 1,000 MW. Texas has 19 coal, natural gas and fuel oil plants larger than 1,000 MW.

Even the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal corporation that dammed rivers in the East to electrify Tennessee, is heavily invested in non-hydro power plants. Today in Tennessee, 13,000 MW is coal-fired, 4,000 MW is nuclear, and just 1,600 MW is hydro.

Then we would discuss how hydropower is a low producer of power. All over the country we have hundreds of massive dams that generate relatively small amounts of power.

For instance, in southwestern Idaho, C. J. Strike Dam southwest of Mountain Home averages 54 MW. Swan Falls Dam in southern Ada County averages about 16 MW. And the biggest dam in Idaho Power's hydro system, Brownlee, averages about 270 megawatts.

I would then ask the students of Idaho Salmon Recovery 101 to answer the following question, “How much power do you think a 146-foot-high dam generates when all the water flowing from the Clearwater, Salmon, and Snake River basins flows through the dam's turbines?” Would they answer 1,000 MW, the size of a standard nuclear plant? Or 1,500 MW, the size of dozens of coal-fired power plants around America?

The correct answer for late summer and fall would be about 200 MW. During August, 146-foot-high Lower Granite dam, the first federal dam downstream from Lewiston on the lower Snake River, averaged about 200 MW.

Flows through its turbines were normal for this time of year, about 28,000 cubic feet per second, the equivalent of 35 Boise Rivers (measured at the Glenwood Bridge.)

Next we would discuss the grave environmental costs of hydropower. For example, Lower Granite dam destroyed 38 miles of the lower Snake River and suffocated 8,900 acres. Sturgeon suffered. Eels suffered. Salmon suffered.

The harm of Lower Granite Dam extends upstream for 500 miles all the way into Idaho's de facto national salmon refuges — our wilderness areas, national recreation areas, and wild and scenic rivers. Once abundant wild salmon are now endangered species there.

Finally, we would discuss electrical generating options. We have natural gas pipelines running through southern Idaho that are connected to natural gas fields in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. We have coal deposits in Wyoming, Utah and Montana. We have wind all around us. Hydro need not be our energy choice.

If I were teaching a college class in Idaho Salmon Recovery 101, I wonder what my students would conclude about the four Lower Snake River dams? Save them or breach them for the sake of healthy rivers and salmon runs?

They just might conclude, as I have, that these dams do not give society enough benefits to justify their existence.

Reed Burkholder
Idaho Dams Deserve a Failing Grade in Salmon Recovery 101
The Idaho Statesman, October 4, 2002

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