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Commentaries and editorials

Setting the Record Straight
on Lower Snake River Dams

by John W. Sigler
Statesman Journal, April 9, 2020

Comparative Survival Study report (CSS 2019), predicts a two- to three-fold increase
in salmon abundance with removal of the four LSRDs

Graphic: Survival of juvenile salmon from the Washington/Idaho border to beyond Bonneville Dam has averaged around 50% survival.  In other words, half of them die while migrating through the federal hydropower system. The March 29 op-ed by Stephen Hartgen on the lower Snake River dam (LSRD) removal misleads readers on critical social and scientific issues. Below we present facts from fisheries scientists with over 100 years of combined expertise in Idaho salmon and steelhead research.

Idaho business owners and employees who rely on the multi-million-dollar economic impacts of salmon and steelhead fisheries are the ones being affected by this crisis and the accompanying misinformation. Any Idahoan who loves to fish for salmon or wishes to preserve this iconic Idaho experience for children and grandchildren must be informed and participate in this effort.

Dam removal supporters are the scientific experts and the people and communities who rely on salmon and steelhead for business, jobs and the Idaho way of life. Following are facts that explain why the LSRDs removal is the best if not the only chance of saving Idaho’s salmon and steelhead and why a significant portion of Idaho’s resident population approve of LSRD removal. All facts presented here are available on line.

FACT: PATH is the Plan for Analyzing & Testing Hypotheses, a collaborative process for formulating & testing hypotheses surrounding Columbia River Basin (CRB) Anadromous Fish Recovery (Marmorek et al 1998). This report was commissioned by the federal agencies responsible for dam operations and salmon and steelhead protection with input from over 30 contributors with personal, scientific knowledge of Snake River salmon and steelhead. PATH concluded the natural river (breach) is the only option that will provide recovery. This option has the highest certainty of success and the lowest risk of failure. PATH reported their findings in 1998, and for the past 20-plus years independent scientists and scientific review panels have consistently re-affirmed PATH conclusions. A recent collaborative scientific report that confirms PATH, Comparative Survival Study report (CSS 2019), predicts a two- to three-fold increase in salmon abundance with removal of the four LSRDs and a four-fold increase if breach is coupled with maximum spill over the Columbia River dams. Dam breaching as the only mechanism to save Idaho salmon and steelhead is supported by the scientific evidence. Had the PATH recommendations been implemented in 1998, we would have already achieved recovery of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead.

FACT: Regarding promises of likely recovery numbers. Scientists from all over the Pacific Northwest have been promoting breaching LSRDs since 1999 when 200 fisheries biologists sent a letter to President Bill Clinton detailing the failed past processes and supporting breaching the dams as the only mechanism for recovery. A 2000 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Biological Opinion stated that removal of the LSRDs offered "more certainty of long-term survival and recovery of Columbia-Snake salmon populations than other measures."

In 2018, The Fish Passage Center, addressing the futility of all other options relative to restoring normative flows, stated, "It is clear that there are only two options left for the region, increase spill to the 125 percent gas cap and/or remove the four lower Snake River dams."

Decades of research by scientists were summarized in a white paper by five experts in salmon and orca biology and addressed to PNW governors and Congress in 2020, noting that a concise review of the best science consistently points toward restoration of the Lower Snake River through dam removal as the single most effective strategy for recovering salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. Experts stated that dam removal has a "uniquely high recovery potential" for Chinook salmon compared to other actions. Concluding that removal of the dams is necessary to restore salmon runs and avoid extinction of the Southern Residents orcas. The analysis identified the Lower Snake River dams as the primary cause of Chinook salmon decline and the low Chinook salmon populations as the largest threat to Southern Resident Orcas.

FACT: Regarding LSRD power generation. LSRDs operate best in high spring flows. In August through January, production from the LSRDs runs in the 1 to 3 K MWs. The LSRDs annual output is about 1,000 average megawatts, about one-third of peak capacity. BPA power grid does not rely on LSRDs. Based on current capital costs for wind and solar, it is now an open question whether or not wind and solar and demand response could provide carbon-free power more cheaply than the dams. Given that average annualized costs to continue operating the dams for the next 30 years is $245 million per year, replacing the dams with alternative energy sources would benefit rate payers, not penalizing us.

FACT: Flood control. LSRDs are "run of the river," providing minimal, if any flood protection in the region. Even considering that there is "Idaho farmland" near Lewiston or Moscow, how does any action regarding irrigation at the LSRDs have any potential to threaten farmlands 20 to 30 miles away?

At least a dozen other counter points, based on solid science and the personal experiences of dozens of professional fisheries biologists could be made addressing the March 29 op-ed. Space considerations prevent this presentation but we encourage you to search credible online sources for facts.

John W. Sigler of Pocatello is a retired environmental scientist who completed his Ph.D. in fisheries biology at the University of Idaho in 1980. Through Caxton Press in Caldwell, he and coauthor Don Zaroban published the 815-page "Fishes of Idaho: A Natural History Survey" in 2018. This article was written, edited and reviewed by four fisheries scientists with over 100 years of fisheries field experience in Idaho.


John W. Sigler
Setting the Record Straight on Lower Snake River Dams
Statesman Journal, April 9, 2020

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