Oregon Governor’s Snake River Dam Protest
by Sen. Tim Sheldon
She ignores the fact that salmon runs right now are sustained by hatchery programs financed by the sale of power.
This $45M/yr effort would end the moment the dams are breached. Salmon populations wouldn’t increase. They would collapse.
The other day, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared war on the lower Snake River dams in Washington state, but you have to wonder why she went so far out of her way.
If she wants to tear things down in the name of the salmon, there is so much she could destroy right at home.
Take the Hells Canyon dams, for instance -- a series of three dams on the Oregon-Idaho border that form a perfect salmon-killing machine. There are no fish ladders. When the dams went up 60 years ago, confused fish swam into the concrete and died, and that was the end of wild salmon on the Upper Snake.
About 40 percent of the salmon habitat on the upper reaches of the Snake and its tributaries has been walled off in this way. This is one of the big reasons salmon runs have declined. Yet nobody is talking about breaching these upriver dams, certainly not the elected leaders of Oregon and Idaho. I don’t think we ought to breach these dams either. We need the power and other benefits they provide.
But when Brown starts talking about removing those terrible dams in Washington, the ones where the fish-passage actually works, her argument certainly seems a bit hollow. Her manifesto takes the form of a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and it is a perfect illustration of the shallow thinking, tunnel vision and dangerous ignorance that activists and their political allies have whipped into a political movement.
Brown starts by praising Inslee for his “leadership” in his effort to destroy the lower-Snake dams -- and here we must thank her for stating the obvious, more boldly than our governor is willing to do himself.
Then comes the nonsense. First, she says breaching the lower Snake dams would double or triple salmon runs. She ignores the fact that salmon runs right now are sustained by hatchery programs financed by the sale of power. This $45M/yr effort would end the moment the dams are breached. Salmon populations wouldn’t increase. They would collapse. There aren’t enough wild fish left. It would be years before we would see a rebound of any significance, and with so much habitat off-limits to wild salmon, we couldn’t expect much.
Next Brown tells us dam-breaching would save the Puget Sound orca. The idea is that more salmon would keep the orca fed. But fisheries researchers tell us a shortage of Snake River salmon isn’t the problem, it’s a shortage of salmon on Puget Sound.
This fixation on dam-breaching is deadly for the orca, because it distracts us from solutions that would actually work, like hatcheries and habitat restoration. Timing also is a problem. It would a decade or more to obtain congressional approval and demolish the dams, and then we would have to wait for the fish to return. By the time we figure out this didn’t work, the southern resident orca would already be extinct.
Breaching advocates don’t want to acknowledge the biggest reason for declining salmon populations. Over the last five years, we have seen a spike in ocean temperatures. Returns have declined throughout the west, not just on the Snake.
Dams aren’t to blame. These problematic ocean conditions make dam-supported recovery efforts all the more important. We have invested billions in fish passage on the Snake, to the point that the smolt-survival rate is a world-class 95 percent at each dam. It is a cumulative 70-to-80 percent for those that swim the entire river system. That’s pretty close to the survival rate on undammed Canadian rivers.
Breaching advocates duck another issue. Clean-power legislation is forcing the early retirement of coal plants, and there is nothing to take their place. Supply will start running short next year, and within a decade blackouts and brownouts could become the norm. We’re going to need the power from those dams -- all of them, in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
You have to wonder if Brown really wrote that letter to Inslee. Maybe it was forwarded to her by an environmental group and she signed it without reading. Maybe she forgot that last year she signed an agreement to reauthorize those fish-killing Hells Canyon dams. Or maybe Brown knew perfectly well that she was preaching one thing and doing another, and just figured nobody would notice. It’s so easy for a politician to call for sacrifice when somebody else has to pay.
Setting the Record Straight on Lower Snake River Dams by John W. Sigler, Statesman Journal, 4/9/20
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