Breaching Dams will Not
by Judi Danielson
More than a decade ago, some folks involved in the debate over ways to save endangered salmon said we had no choice: breach the four lower Snake River dams or the fish would be extinct within 10 years. More than 10 years later, they're not extinct. In fact, despite a number of challenges, the runs are generally healthier now than they were then, thanks to passage improvements at the dams.
Does this mean we can declare victory? Of course not. It does, however, afford us time to find out more about the science of fish recovery. We know very little, for example, of what happens to salmon once they enter the ocean.
Of the average 1,200-day life span of the salmon, only about 100 to 150 days are spent in freshwater in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Hydropower dams, which produce clean, renewable energy, by the way, are not the only hazards facing these fish. Nature provides its own hazards. For example, the great majority of the thousands of salmon eggs deposited in a single nest, or redd, won't survive. Many juvenile fish fall prey to predators and other dangers in the upstream habitats where they hatch. Fully half of the smolts will not survive until they reach the first reservoir behind a dam.
According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 3 percent to 4 percent of the adult salmon and steelhead returning to spawn are killed by sea lions below Bonneville Dam. An even greater percentage is taken in harvest in the ocean and lower Columbia River, though some people question the sanity of allowing harvest of an endangered species -- especially a spawning female full of thousands of eggs.
We need to ask how we would replace the renewable power from the four dams if they were breached. It would take one nuclear power plant, or two coal-fired, or four gas-fired plants to replace the average annual power actually produced by those dams. It would take 2.5 nuclear, five coal-fired, or 11 gas-fired power plants to replace their sustained peaking capacity (extreme cold and extreme hot days for example). To replace the average annual power with combined-cycle gas-fired turbines would result in an additional 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere yearly. Replacing the power with coal would yield more than 9.4 million additional tons of emissions. Replacing the sustained peaking power of those dams with gas or coal power obviously would yield even greater emissions. That's not to mention the other additional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds that would be released.
I ask why, with the knowledge we have, would we do so much environmental harm by breaching major dams when there's scant evidence such an action would recover fish? There is a fair amount of anecdotal unscientific rhetoric circulating among some special-interest groups, but that cannot be the basis for a major decision like breaching the dams.
There's another valid question about whether such extreme measures are even needed. Researchers in the Columbia Basin who have been analyzing adult fish survival say even more fish are surviving today than was thought previously. Results of PIT-tag research conducted by NOAA Fisheries show that, in this decade, we've had runs larger than any since recording began in 1938. Per-dam survival of juvenile spring chinook now averages around 98 percent.
It is imperative that we deal with all aspects of fish mortality, including harvest and predation. Straying is another factor that is seldom discussed.
We need to remember that only four of the 13 ESA-listed salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia Basin must pass those lower Snake dams. Breaching is an expensive, environmentally dangerous, extreme solution. The numbers of these beautiful fish are trending up without dam breaching, and we should continue on that path.
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