the film


Commentaries and editorials

Feds Hear Arguments on
Breaching Snake River Dams

by K.C. Mehaffey
NW Fishletter, May 1, 2023

"If you were to restore the salmon runs, you would have
this carbon sequestration that's currently idle,"

-- Scott Levy, host of

The Washington State Grain Train recently acquired 29 more grain cars to help farmers get grain to export terminals Federal officials heard plenty of arguments both for and against breaching the four lower Snake River dams in their first two listening sessions on March 31 and April 3.

The sessions provided an opportunity for public input in the otherwise confidential process of negotiating a settlement in a decades-long lawsuit over the operations of 14 federal dams in the Columbia Basin.

Litigation activity in National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. is currently stayed through Aug. 31 while the parties attempt a resolution with a strategy to restore "healthy and abundant" salmon and steelhead populations throughout the Columbia Basin.

While federal agencies made numerous commitments in last year's stay agreement, only one -- the promise to contemplate "potentially breaching" the four lower Snake River dams -- received all the attention during the three-hour listening sessions.

More than 100 people were given three minutes to express their thoughts in the two sessions set up by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is working with the parties to resolve the lawsuit.

Many members of the public who spoke in favor of breaching said federal agencies have tried many things to restore salmon and steelhead in the Snake River, but nothing has worked. Breaching the four dams is the only option left to prevent salmon from going extinct, they said.

Many of those arguing for dam breaching represented environmental organizations. Others identified themselves as young people, grandparents, Idaho residents, fishing guides, and people who fish recreationally and commercially for salmon and steelhead.

Many of the people arguing against breaching the dams said salmon and dams can coexist. They said it would be difficult -- some said impossible -- to replace the reliable energy generated by the dams and the transportation services provided by barging. They pointed to the significant cost of replacing services, the potential for 25-percent rate increases, increases in greenhouse gas emissions, and threats to food security and electric reliability that would result if the dams are breached.

People who supported keeping the dams in place included representatives of ports, barge operators, grain growing organizations and electric utilities, with some national-level officials weighing in.

These are just some of the comments of people from both sides of the issue:

Rein Attemann, Puget Sound campaign manager for the Washington Conservation Action, pointed to a report by NOAA Fisheries released last year that included breaching the dams as a centerpiece action and said the science is clear -- removing the dams is essential for salmon recovery.

He said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee concluded in their report that breaching the dams is feasible and economically viable, and many clean-energy projects are already in the works that could replace the energy the dams provide.

Maanit Goel, a high school student from Sammamish, Washington, who has petitioned for removing the dams, said the services of the dams can be replaced, but "a species, once gone, can never be replaced." He told the agencies, "Do not let them go extinct on your watch."

Sara Patton -- former executive director of the NW Energy Coalition and former Seattle City Light manager of conservation policy and planning -- pointed to an Energy Strategies study that provided portfolios to replace the power generated by the dams. She said the energy can be replaced with minor impacts to greenhouse gas emissions.

Monika Shields, co-founder and director of the Orca Behavior Institute, said that the endangered southern resident killer whales rely on healthy salmon stocks throughout their range. Their biggest threat, she said, is the lack of abundant prey, especially wild Chinook. She called on the agencies to breach the dams as soon as possible while replacing the services they provide.

Scott Levy, whose website promotes dialogue on Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead, said salmon bring huge amounts of nutrients to interior forests, which have now lacked salmon for decades, impacting their ability to sequester carbon. "If you were to restore the salmon runs, you would have this carbon sequestration that's currently idle," he said.

Julian Matthews, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, said the dams are preventing tribal members from accessing their right to hunt, fish and gather, as promised in an 1855 treaty with the United States. He said the tribe ceded 15 million acres to the U.S. in order to retain those rights. Many other speakers said the federal agencies need to uphold promises made to tribal members.

Christina Mullee, representing PNW Protectors, said there are so many reasons to breach the dams, but the largest may be to save the salmon, orcas and 137 other species that rely on salmon, including trees and vegetation. "Salmon literally bring the nutrients of the ocean to the forest," she said. "One cannot exist without the other. If we allow the salmon to go extinct, we create a ripple effect, and the demise of so many, and eventually us," she said.

Rob Tiedemann, president of the board of directors for the Boise River Enhancement Network, went further than many of the other speakers. "The loss of salmon is nothing short of biological genocide," he told the agencies. However, he said, he has hope, and looks forward to the future, when the lower Snake River dams and the Hells Canyon Complex dams have been removed and habitat in the lower Boise River becomes available to salmon, steelhead and lamprey.

Several people asked the federal agencies to breach the dams this year, to include breaching in the settlement agreement, or to breach the dams by executive order.

People speaking in support of the dams spoke largely of the challenges that would be difficult to overcome if they're breached.

Michael Purdie, director of regulatory affairs and market strategies for the National Hydropower Association, said his organization is not opposed to removing dams when they have no useful purpose. However, he said, the four lower Snake River dams provide important services that are not easily replaced.

"We in the industry support the need for healthy salmon and steelhead and other fish populations," Purdie said. "But we need to remember that climate change is a major contributor to declining fish populations."

He added that necessary and material steps must be taken prior to replacing the dispatchable energy and essential grid services that the dams currently provide, and that losing them would not only impact reliability in the Pacific Northwest, but throughout the West.

Suzanne Grassell, senior policy advisor for Chelan County Public Utility District, told the agencies there should be opportunity for public input into the FMCS process because decisions made could have implications for grid reliability and regional fish programs.

"We are concerned that a potential grid reliability crisis has been growing in recent years that could threaten public safety, energy delivery and cost for communities," she said.

She also noted that the PUD opposes removing the dams because they provide critical capacity and support regional reliability, even though it does not get any of its power from the Bonneville Power Administration.

She said hydropower is uniquely positioned to support the region's transition to deep decarbonization, and breaching the dams would set the region back years in its goals for transitioning to clean energy. Already, an additional 15,000 megawatts of renewables and storage are needed, at a cost of $15 billion, Grassell said. Without considering the massive shift to electrification, the Western Power Pool needs an additional 160 gigawatts of renewable and storage capacity by 2045, which will cost about $142 billion at present value, she said

Numerous people representing Northwest grain growers, barge operators and ports spoke of the difficulty of replacing barge services.

Jess McCluer, vice president of safety and regulatory affairs for the National Grain and Feed Association, said breaching the dams would severely impact the ability of Northwest growers to get their grain to export markets.

He said the Snake River barge system is the third-largest grain corridor in the world, transporting nearly 30 percent of U.S. grain. The system cannot be replaced by rail or truck because the infrastructure does not exist, he noted, and it's highly unlikely that it can be created in a reasonable amount of time. He also said barging grain is the most environmentally friendly method of transport.

Stacey Satterlee, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said the voice of agriculture must be included in the deliberations, because farmers are facing numerous challenges resulting from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, trade and supply chain disruptions and drought.

"Food security is a national security issue," she said, adding that an estimated 11,000 farms could be lost due to added costs to ship their grain if the dams are removed.

Peter Schrappen, Pacific region vice president for American Waterways Operators, said dam breaching is not supported by the best available science. He concluded by asking, "If the dams are breached, where are we going to find the 80,000 needed truck drivers to haul the cargo that now finds itself barged? And how is our climate going to accommodate this influx of new greenhouse gases that come with rail and road?"

A third and final listening session is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 25. Registration for that session will open sometime in May.

K.C. Mehaffey
Feds Hear Arguments on Breaching Snake River Dams
NW Fishletter, May 1, 2023

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation