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Salmon vs. Dams

by Gloria Gonzalez & Arianna Skibell
Politico, May 15, 2023

Hydropower has provided reliable energy to some regions of the United States
but has also contributed to driving some species to the brink of extinction.

Adult Runs to Idaho of Salmon and Steelhead (1962-2022) counted at highest dam of their migratory route. President Joe Biden has pledged to restore "healthy and abundant salmon runs" in the Pacific Northwest. But that could require doing something politically tricky -- removing four dams that can provide electricity to about 800,000 homes.

Federal scientists say breaching the dams should be part of the administration's efforts to help Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead trout populations recover. Tribal leaders, conservationists, Democrats and one key Republican agree. But they face resistance from GOP lawmakers who view breaching the dams as a non-starter, because of the costs involved and the difficulty of replacing the dams' hydropower.

"While there is growing support for removal, there is also entrenched opposition and embrace of the status quo," said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "We are a long way from the finish line."

The debate exemplifies one of the trade-offs inherent in the clean energy transition: Hydropower has provided reliable, zero-carbon energy to some regions of the United States for decades, but has also contributed to driving some species to the brink of extinction.

The four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state, built in the 1960s and 1970s, threaten the fish populations by blocking some of them from returning to their habitats to spawn.

(bluefish corrects: It is the downstream migration to the ocean that present the greatest mortality, not the upstream migration of adults. See for instance A Look at How the Salmon are Doing by Matthew Weaver, Capital Press 5/18/23)
Salmon hatcheries have helped fish counts rebound to some extent, but are complicated, expensive operations that alone cannot help the species recover.

"We need electricity," Lee Juan Tyler, a member of the governing council of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which supports dam removal, said during a hatchery visit organized by thext Society of Environmental Journalists. "But let's do it right."

The political puzzle: But overcoming political objections to dam removal may be difficult.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a proponent of salmon recovery, has proposed removing the dams as part of a $33 billion plan that also includes investing in energy and transportation infrastructure and compensating communities along the rivers for losses.

Washington state officials are also exploring the idea. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) is expected to sign a budget soon that will provide $7.5 million to study transportation, energy and irrigation issues that could arise from dam removal.

Biden has pledged to work with lawmakers and tribal leaders to find a solution. But House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Dan Newhouse, Republican members of the Washington state delegation, have introduced federal legislation to protect the dams, with Newhouse accusing Biden of throwing his support behind "radical dam-breaching activists."

Electric utilities say there may be no viable way to remove the dams without turning to fossil fuels, pointing to a study commissioned by federal agency Bonneville Power Administration. That study found that it could cost between $11 billion and $19 billion to replace the dam's power with a mix of technology, including wind and solar energy, as well as small nuclear reactors.

Hayes, of the Idaho Conservation League, noted that utilities are Bonneville customers. He accused the federal agency of "sabotaging this administration's efforts to restore salmon."

A BPA spokesperson rejected that, saying the organization is taking "a very active role in the conversation" convened by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"Breaching is on the table in those talks," the spokesperson said.

Gloria Gonzalez & Arianna Skibell
Salmon vs. Dams
Politico, May 15, 2023

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