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Breaching the Dams?

by Peter DeFazio
Eugene Weekly, May 3, 2011

Costs outweigh the benefits

In her Viewpoint "Smells Fishy" (4/21), Sheena Moore calls for removing the four lower Snake River dams to save Northwest salmon. She claims the dams can be removed to increase fish habitat while also retiring Northwest coal plants and producing cheaper energy bills.

That sounds great. But it's not true.

In fact, the very reference Moore uses to make her arguments, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC), debunked similar claims in a letter published in The Oregonian March 29, nearly a month before Moore's article appeared in this paper.

In the letter, the executive director of the NPCC, Steve Crow, states that in order to replace the output of the four Snake dams "regional output of existing power plants fired by natural gas and coal would have to increase and that new natural gas-fired generation would be needed."

NPCC estimates that replacing 1,000 megawatts of clean hydro power from the Snake dams with gas and coal would increase Northwest carbon emissions by an estimated 3 million tons per year, a 7.6 percent increase. These estimates do not include the additional carbon emissions that would result from the loss of navigation and barge transport on the Columbia.

Dam removal would also increase the cost of the power system and force BPA customers -- read "you" -- to pick up the tab. NPCC estimates energy bills could go up 24 to 29 percent if the Snake dams are breached. That does not include the multi-billion costs of removing the dams.

With state unemployment at 10 percent and economic recovery teetering on the brink, increasing energy bills on Northwest families and businesses by up to 50 percent would be disastrous.

Finally, removing the dams provides no guarantee of improved salmon survival. Thanks to dramatic ratepayer-financed improvements to dams over the last decade, salmon migrating to the ocean through the Columbia power system survive at a rate equal to the rate seen in rivers with no dams.

A study initiated by the Clinton administration analyzed the costs and benefits of dam removal and concluded the costs far outweigh the benefits. The study pointed out that the best spawning habitat is blocked by high private dams which have no fish passage. Further, siltation caused by dam removal could require barging all salmon smolts for up to 10 years.

(bluefish comments: Actually the Clinton-era Lower Snake River Juvenile Migration Study found that from a macroeconomic perspective the economics would be more or less neutral except that the region would lose the power of the Lower Snake River dams valued at about $250 million per year. If you feel this comment is in error please contact to discuss. Changes will be made here based on any discussions.)
For years I have encouraged environmental groups like Save Our Wild Salmon to challenge the relicensing of private dams. This would provide huge benefits to fish with little cost to Northwest ratepayers. To date, they have declined to pursue this course of action.

I share Moore's goal of restoring Northwest salmon. That is why I support aggressively implementing the comprehensive federal salmon plan that is currently pending in Judge Redden's court. This plan has been rigorously reviewed by some of the nation's top independent scientists who concluded it is a sound plan based on state-of-the-art scientific analysis. It has been reviewed by the Obama administration's top scientists, who support it. And it is supported by three of the four Northwest states and most of the Northwest Indian tribes with an interest in the Columbia River system fisheries.

This plan -- at a cost of $750 million per year to Northwest ratepayers -- is one of the most ambitious and extensive fish and wildlife mitigation programs in the world today. It is responsible for directing $1 billion to salmon friendly modifications to dams since 2000, restoring more than 100 river miles of fish habitat, reopening 2,000 miles of spawning streams, and significantly reducing predation that kills thousands of adult and juvenile salmon every year.

The federal plan is helping to restore salmon populations. Salmon returns to the Columbia Basin have been trending upward for the last 20 years. Preliminary estimates indicate more than 10,000 wild Snake River fall Chinook salmon returned in 2010 -- about twice the previous record set in 2001. Snake River spring and summer Chinook returns in the last 10 years are more than three times the average seen during the 1990s. And Snake River sockeye -- which were almost entirely wiped out before construction began on the federal dams in the Snake River -- are making a comeback.

The facts tell us that removing the four lower Snake dams would be costly, risky and unnecessary. We should instead focus our efforts on fully implementing the robust, scientifically-based regional salmon plan that is awaiting Judge Redden's approval.

Related Pages: does the research by 5/5/11
FEEDBACK: Snake River Sockeye Recovery Plan by Scott Levy, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 11/19/10

DeFazio's Role in the Columbia Basin Salmon Crisis by Sheena Moore, Eugene Weekly, 4/21/11
Saving Salmon: Time to Get Out of the Courtroom and Into the River by Doc Hastings & DeFazio, The Oregonian, 3/11/11

Peter DeFazio of Springfield serves in Congress, representing Oregon's House District 4.
Breaching the Dams?
Eugene Weekly, May 3, 2011

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