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Breaching: The Impacts are Spilling Forth

by Glen Squires - Washington Wheat Commision
WHEAT LIFE November 1999

The effects of breaching dams are not minimal. The $20-million Lower Snake River Feasibility Study conducted by the Corps of Engineers attempted to leave no stone unturned in analyzing all aspects associated with breaching dams as a solution to get more fish into the river system. While not exhaustive, the following are some of those findings . . .


Lost hydropower generation capacity of the four Snake River dams would be replaced by existing thermal power plants and by building additional natural gas fired combined-cycle combustion turbine plants. There would be a shift in composition of local populations and decreased air quality. The loss of hydropower would also effect BPA's ability to transmit electricity throught the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific Southwest.

Power capacity of the four Snake River dams is 3483 megawatts (only 1231 megawatts are currently produced, because of the volume of water now being spilled over the dams). The total cost of lost power would be $251- to $291- million annually, which includes:

The analysis does not take into account the possiblity that large industrial users, such as aluminum companies, may be unwilling to pay the increases and could make one of two choices: purchase power from other investor-owned utilities at the same price currently offered by BPA or simply move operations off-shore. Such a move could have massive ripple effects throughout the PNW. The resultant shift of burden to residential ratepayers under these scenarios is not considered.

Real Estate

Legislation in 1945 enabled land acquistion in support of the construction of the four Snake River Dams. Breaching the dams would deactivate or "mothball" the structures until scientists determine if breaching is, in fact, biologically beneficial for salmon. If not, the Corps suggests the dams would be reactivated.

The Corps states that public control of a significant portion of project lands would be necessary to protect the environment and natural benefits to the salmon derived from reservoir drawdown. Existing leases to state and local governments and private entities for recreation and fish and wildlife management would likely be modified and expanded.

Water Supply

Irrigated agriculture centered in Franklin and Walla Walla counties is the dominant user of water pumped from the Snake River. The economic effects of breaching are described based on pump modification costs and changes in farmland value and net income.

Pump Modification

Since individual pump modification was deemed unrealistic, due to low water levels and a meandering river with high volumes of sediment, it was determine that one large pumping station with a distribution system to deliver water to the various would be the only practical option. A sediment control reservoir would also be needed.

Farm Land Value

The Corps arrives at an average $4100 per acre value of irrigated farmland. Through a series of calculations, the Corps estimates that the economic effect of dam breaching, measured on the basis of a change in farmland value, is equal to $134,240,000. Approaching the issue from a change in net farm income, the value rises slightly to $145,600,000. Current land market values are estimated to be:

Bottom Line

Because of the high cost to modify pump stations, it has been determined that taking farmland out of production under dam-breach conditions provides the most reasonable (least cost) estimate. While there continue to be unresolved issues about the effects on irrigated agriculture, the Corps is quick to point out that the results of the Snake River Feasibility Study are "not likely to be very sensitive to the irrigatioin analysis, so it does not appear worthwhile to dedicate significant study resources to refining previous estimates."

* Next month, a look at the social, transportation and engineering effects of breaching.

Glen Squires - Washington Wheat Commision
Breaching: The Impacts are Spilling Forth
Wheat Life - p.39, November 1999

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