'Lethal Barrier' Proposed to be Removed,
by Cheryl Aarnio
Salmon population decreased by 90 percent, will go extinct without removal of Snake River dams
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson created a proposal to demolish the Snake River dams to restore the salmon and steelhead populations.
Two years ago, only 14 wild Sockeye salmon were reported to have made it to the Stanley Basin in Idaho, said Carrie Herrmann, outreach coordinator for Save Our Wild Salmon.
"Before any dams were here in the Pacific Northwest, there were hundreds of thousands [of salmon that made it through]," she said.
Since the dams were built in the late 1950s, the salmon population has decreased by 90 percent, said Bill Arthur, chair of the Snake/Columbia River Salmon campaign at the Sierra Club. The populations are being flushed to the ocean and through the dams too quickly, killing migrating salmon.
(bluefish corrects: it is that downstream movement is too slow now that reservoirs impede the natural flushing to the ocean during the spring freshet.)Little salmon, called smolts, are lost as they try to migrate to the ocean. They cannot pass through the dams successfully. On average, half the population is lost when they try to get through, Arthur said.
Salmon and steelhead populations are listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are on the verge of extinction, he said.
Orca whales also feed on Chinook salmon coming out of the Columbia River, Arthur said. Orcas are currently endangered, and now their food source is diminishing.
Both the fish and whales are threatened by the dams, he said.
Taking down the dams removes a "lethal barrier" to open a healthier, more stable habitat for the salmon to thrive in, Arthur said.
The dams supply roughly four percent of the region's electricity, Arthur said. However, this is not a significant source of energy.
The Grand Coulee Dam would be an example of a water source that generates a significant amount of power, he said.
Most of the power from the Snake River dams is generated April through June after a snow runoff, Arthur said. They do not generate significant power throughout the rest of the year.
"[The four Snake River dams] are very bad at producing energy," Herrmann said. "It's not very consistent energy because it is only produced in the springtime."
Wind and solar are preferred sources of electricity because they are cheaper, Arthur said.
The primary purpose of the dams is transportation, Herrmann said.
The dams were originally put in to make Lewiston and Clarkston an inland seaport and mostly for barging. Power production was a secondary purpose, Arthur said.
Studies have shown that the power from the Snake River dams can be replaced with a combination of wind, solar and carbon-free energy sources, Arthur said.
In his proposal, Simpson outlined a plan to replace hydroelectricity with clean, reliable power sources, Arthur said. Simpson addressed agricultural and power interests, along with restoring the salmon and steelhead populations.
Alternate prevention methods, cost effectiveness
Spill and reservoir drawdown are alternate methods to help prevent extinction in the salmon population, Arthur said.
Water can be poured over the spillway to help salmon move downstream, he said. However, energy companies do not support this because water that is put over the spillway cannot go through the generators and does not produce power. There is then less power to sell.
"But water over the spillway is better for salmon," Arthur said.
Lowering reservoir levels, or drawdown, can also be done. It reduces the size of the reservoir and speeds the water up, helping salmon move more quickly and safely, he said.
"It buys [the salmon] time but is not sufficient to fully recover them," Arthur said.
Herrmann said taxpayers have been wasting their money because it is going toward salmon recovery, which has not helped in the slightest. The money would be more effective if put toward the removal of the dams.
About $17 billion has been put toward salmon recovery so far, but salmon remain endangered, Herrmann said.
"It would cost a lot of money to repair those dams to make them as effective as they were when they were first put in," she said.
Neither of the options are cost effective. It would be easier to just remove the dams, Arthur said.
It will cost roughly $34 billion to take the dams down, Herrmann said.
"Energy is not the biggest value," Herrmann said. "They're not even flood-control dams. Only one of them does any kind of irrigation."
Tribal treaty rights
Removing the dams could restore as many as a million Chinook salmon, Arthur said. It will enable tribal fishing to meet their treaty rights and restore commercial fishing.
The area of the Snake River is on the historic lands of the Nez Perce Tribe, he said. They are one of the four tribes in the Columbia River region with treaty rights for fishing.
With the endangered salmon population, the tribes have limited access, Arthur said. They can currently only take fish for ceremonial purposes.
Herrmann said the tribes do not believe their treaty rights are being met.
"We cannot risk the instability of the status quo," Simpson said in a press release. "Is the status quo working for anyone? Besides trial attorneys? We are one lawsuit away from total chaos."
There is no backup plan to save the salmon in this region, Herrmann said. If the dams do not come down, the salmon will be gone in a matter of years.
In order for the proposal to become a bill, Simpson needs support from other elected officials, including Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, she said.
"We are encouraging all of our network and people all across the region and nation to reach out to elected officials," Herrmann said. "Get involved in the process and the proposal."
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