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Pacific Northwest Bad News: Serious Problem.
Good News: There IS an Answer

by Xaxnar
Daily Kos, December 19, 2023

Salmon returning from the sea to spawn don't just produce more salmon.
They also bring vital nutrients from the sea into the inland ecosystems.

It isn't rocket science - we know we can do this and it will work. AND... it rhymes.  (Salmon / Orca / Dam Spillway / Rail exists along the Snake River) Once upon a time, people had what seemed like a good idea...

Building four dams on the Lower Snake River would serve several purposes: provide hydro power, make the river navigable for barge traffic to ship farm crops to market, and create an inland port that would be an economic boost for the region. The Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates the four dams that were built in the 1960s-19070s. The website for the Walla Walla District boasts of the positive impact from the dams.

But that depends on who you listen to. The story is not as optimistic as the Army Corps would have you believe at first glance. While they claim salmon production is improving (but still not what it was historically), scroll down at this link to see "Puget Sound Chinook Salmon stocks are not showing improvement."

The problem isn't just making it possible for adult salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Fish ladders are only limited help and supplementing wild fish with hatchery salmon isn't a solution. The dams also block young salmon from reaching the sea. They delay their journey so they miss a critical development window needed to transform into adult steelheads. The slack water behind the dams raises water temperatures to the point where salmon can't survive.

Despite mitigation efforts, the dams have devastated what used to be one of the most productive salmon habitats in the Pacific Northwest. The Southern Resident population of Orcas that depend on salmon as their preferred food source are in decline. While other stresses on the population are having an effect, they are just not able to find enough food.

It's also had a devastating effect on the First Peoples of the region who have lost a traditional major food source, hurt commercial and recreational fisheries, and has consequences for the environment all along the river. Salmon returning from the sea to spawn don't just produce more salmon. They are a food source for animals in the region and a mechanism for bringing vital nutrients from the sea into the inland ecosystems.

The vaunted inland port has failed to generate the traffic once promised; as it is it needs to be periodically dredged at taxpayer expense, and the grain farmers ship by barge is heavily subsidized -- to the point where it would be just as, if not more, cost-effective to subsidize grain shipments by rail.

Speaking of which, there is a network of existing and dormant rail lines in the area that could be restored to handle the grain shipments currently going by barge. That could also revitalize the local economy by offering freight rail service for other needs, as well as developing passenger rail. Solutionary Rail has been looking at the situation and has developed plans. You can find a deck of slides at the link detailing how it would all work, and more:

Click HERE for a PDF of our Summer 2022 Planning for Resilience - Barge to Rail Mode Shift at the Lower Snake River Action Steps document summarizing the actions documented in the slidedeck (Washington and Idaho).

Click HERE for an excerpt on Rail Capacity for Grain Movement by Tom White. His full report Grain by Rail in Eastern Washington from which we draw for aspects of the above slidedeck is HERE. Tom focuses on the WA rail service within 40 miles of the Lower Snake River. He details the rail service capacity along the river from Lewiston to Ayer and demonstrates its potential for fulfilling the increased transportation needs post-breaching. Tom's detailed energy analysis provides valuable insights into the traction vs braking energy ratio. We utilize this finding for the basis of our argument for electrification of shortline railroads servicing this area and the Camas Prairie. (Note about the Full Report: The energy unit (KWh) is a bug in the modeling program, but we believe that the ratios between traction and braking energy remain accurate. This should be further explored to confirm and/or refine the potential for electrification and re-capturing energy through regenerative braking.)

One of the intriguing possibilities of shifting to rails from barges is that battery-powered locomotives moving loaded grain trains downhill could actually charge the batteries enough through regenerative braking to power moving emptied trains back uphill -- reducing emissions to near zero.

There is a growing consensus: the dams have to go:

A December 14, 2023 report from NPR shows that progress is being made, but it's far from complete.
Tribes celebrate historic deal with White House that could save Pacific Northwest salmon

BOISE, Idaho -- The White House has reached what it says is an historic agreement over the restoration of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, a deal that could end for now a decades long legal battle with tribes.

Facing lawsuits, the Biden administration has agreed to put some $300 million toward salmon restoration projects in the Northwest, including upgrades to existing hatcheries that have helped keep the fish populations viable in some parts of the Columbia River basin.

The deal also includes a five year stay on litigation, and a pledge to develop more tribally-run hydropower projects and study alternatives for farmers and recreators should Congress move to breach four large dams on the Snake River, a Columbia tributary, that tribes say have long been the biggest impediment for the fish.

The question is -- do salmon have 5 years to wait for studies?

The agreement stops short of calling for the actual breaching of those four dams along the Lower Snake in Washington state. Biden administration officials insisted to reporters in a call Thursday that the President has no plans to act on the dams by executive order, rather they said it's a decision that lies solely with Congress.

Republican Congessman Mike Simpson of Idaho is calling for breaching the dams, but his bill has been stalled in Congress for over a year. There's stiff opposition from Northwest farmers and utility groups. (The first article in the list above has more details.)

Will special interest groups prevail and drive Snake River salmon into extinction? It's going to take a continuing effort by the public to force action to breach the dams and restore the river. It can happen -- dams on the Klamath River are being removed to restore the river for salmon.

A 2019 documentary "Dammed to Extinction" provides a comprehensive look at the Snake River Dams and the negative impact they are having on the region, focusing on the Orcas. It's available as a DVD (along with other merchandise.) It's also available for streaming on Amazon. Here's the official trailer.

If you have 50 minutes to spare, this looks like the entire documentary, assuming the link holds up.

Interested in doing something about this? If you live in the Pacific Northwest, let your elected representatives hear from you. The "Dammed to Extinction" website has a list of groups and people to contact.

If you want to have input on the rail side, I can suggest getting involved with Solutionary Rail, the Climate Rail Alliance, and the Backbone Campaign.

If you know of other groups to contact, please list them in comments.

Pacific Northwest Bad News: Serious Problem. Good News: There IS an Answer
Daily Kos, December 19, 2023

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