Doc Hastings launches a new effort to save dams from salmon

A GOP bill goes before a congressional subcommittee headed by a representative who believes dam-removal proponents seek higher gas prices and reduced lifestyles. The dams-versus-salmon dispute heats up again.
Tagged chinook salmon are released near the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River, one that is discussed for removal.

Tagged chinook salmon are released near the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River, one that is discussed for removal. NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

Little Goose Dam near Starbuck in Eastern Washington is one of four that have been considered possible candidates for demolition. The others are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite

Little Goose Dam near Starbuck in Eastern Washington is one of four that have been considered possible candidates for demolition. The others are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite Bonneville Power Administration

"Save Our Dams" read irrigation farmers' signs outside a Pasco hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee on Aug. 15. The committee chair, central Washington Congressman Doc Hastings, held the hearing on a bill — christened the Saving Our Dams and New Hydropower Development and Jobs Act — that would make it a whole lot harder to recover salmon populations in the Columbia River system and potentially a lot of other places. No one expects the bill to pass; Hastings' own press release described it as "a starting point" for discussion.

Hastings said at the hearing, though, as Annette Cary reported in the Tri-City Herald, that he had introduced the bill "to take back the offensive on saving dams."

Hastings' bill would, among other things, prohibit any federal money from being spent on removing, partially removing, or studying the removal of any dam in the United States that generates hydropower or on any dam removal mitigation or restoration measures without explicit approval from Congress. Spilling water over the dams to let young salmon make their way downstream in the spring — which the federal courts have required for years — would be forbidden if any federal agency decided that spill would do any harm to any listed species. Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda explains that this provision "would allow the [Bureau of Reclamation] or the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] to basically veto spill.") The Bonneville Power Administration would have to estimate all direct and indirect fish and wildlife protection costs on its wholesale power customers’ monthly bills.

Last year U.S. District Judge James Redden tossed the National Marine Fishery Service's biological opinion ( BiOp) for operation of the federal Columbia River system hydro dams, giving the feds until Jan. 1, 2014 to come up with a better one. (This was strike four for the feds' efforts to get a biological opinion through the courts.) Redden — who has since retired and won't rule on the government's next attempt — had already made it clear that he wanted a BiOp to at least set up a contingency plan for dam breaching. He had proposed "developing a ... plan to study specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns, as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."

Around the time Redden remanded the BiOp to the feds for another try, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society passed a reolution stating that "the four lower Snake River dams and reservoirs are a significant threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon." Consequently, "if society-at-large wishes to restore Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon to sustainable, fishable levels, then a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams."

That, of course, is not what people who depend on the dams and locks to provide cheap barge transportation all the way from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific Ocean want to hear. The feds have just started to let the parties to the long-running BiOp litigation know what they're thinking about the next iteration. Nothing much has happened yet. There is a sense that not much about the parties' attitudes has changed. Some people find that frustrating. "You can't keep saying 'we don't want parties to litigate' while at the same time refusing to talk with them," Mashuda says. One can say that so far, the strategy pursued by the feds, and by the states and tribes that support them, hasn't worked, because NMFS has lost repeatedly in court. On the other hand, one can say its has worked just fine, because they've just kept on doing what they want to do.

Actually, while the courts have shot down one biological opinion after another, and Hastings and his allies use rhetoric that suggest we can still go back to 1937, even federal agencies have somewhat different expectations. Mashuda has mixed feelings about that. "Every time I hear Bonnevile taking credit for spill, my first reaction is one of simmering rage," he says. "But on some level, coopting that message [about the value of spilling water over the dams as juvenile fish make their way downstream every spring] is a sign that they've come to realize that [dealing with] this issue as [they did] in the '80s and '90s is no longer possible." But the evolution of attitudes is a slow process. "My big concern," Mashuda says, "is that it could be 40 more years. I think the fish are telling us that we don't have that much time."


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 3:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Columbia River salmon and other fish have a powerful advocate in Mr. Chasen. He's ably described the issue of the mid-Columbia dams from that perspective. Although I haven't worked on energy policy for many years, let me put in a good word for big hydro based on the truths of that bygone era. At that time, big dams were the most ecologically benign producers of the country's least expensive electricity. Since then, we've begun to understand the dangers that carbon based energy sources pose to our planet's climate. And we still depend upon electricity for many of our energy needs. The most ecologically benign, least expensive, and most climate friendly producers of large amounts of dependable electricity are ... Drum roll please ... Big hydro dams.

There may well come a time when we will be able to produce energy in even more ecologically benign ways. That will be a great day: for fish, folks, and the earth. Until then though, we need to retain and support those energy sources that provide dependable and affordable power while putting the least strain on the climate and the
environment. That means making peace with big hydro, for the time being anyway.

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree that as a category, hydro dams are camparatively benign ecologically. (Although that's a pretty low bar.) But some particular dams still fail the cost-benefit analysis, and not just the Elwha dams. The Snake dams have a particularly high ecological and econic and social cost in their impacts to wild salmon (and sturgeon, lamprey, etc.,). And they have relatively low benefits that can be largely replaced.
I'm all for hydro. Just in the right circumstances.
Nice article, Mr Chasan.

nonydog

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Any cost benefit analysis needs to include a couple of features. First, an analysis that looks at the current and future fiscal and climate costs of the power that must be used to replace the electricity lost from the mid-Columbia dams. And second, the fiscal and environmental costs of making the opposite choice and choosing folks over fish by stopping or minimizing the fish mitigation programs supported by Bonneville ratepayers. Policy makers, including judges, need that breadth of data before they can make the kind of Solomanlike decision needed on this issue.

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

"Only recently have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction."

Which salmon "species" are on the "brink of extinction"?

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh my God, here we go again! There must be an election soon!

The "Doc" knows his bill won't make it out of Committee but it will probably generate some campaign contributions, or at least some good editorials that can be used for last minute brochures or, even better, a taxpayer paid -- franked --- "update."

Earth Justice and Save Our Wild Salmon are also thankful. The "contribute now" letters, e mails, and phone calls are being readied if not already sent. "Save the Salmon" and "Stop the Doc" themes will resonate.

Meanwhile, the Corps is probably sharpening its budget request to see if there is any possible way to spend more money reconfiguring the dams, and consultants are suggesting them even if the Corps hasn't thought that far ahead.

And don't forget the rest of the "fish and dam" industry, which deserves some mention. The academics, the hatchery people, the Power Council, the agriculture lobbyists and so many, many, more.

This debate has gone on since the dams were put in. The brilliant architects of which put in fish ladders to get the fish "upstream" but ignored "bypass" facilities to minimize "downstream" impacts. The Power Act brought new money to the table and we have been busy spending it ever since. And will continue to do so.

This is not an issue anyone wants to resolve.

The dams aren't coming out, and if they did they would need to be replaced by thermal facilities with far more significant environmental impacts. And Earth Justice would argue new generation isn't needed, or that if it is wind farms and solar can do the job. Utilities and BPA would disagree, and we could debate that issue for a decade and have another lawsuit over the adequacy of the Environmental Impact Statement that concluded otherwise.

Almost forgot the pollution and additional environmental,economic and social impacts that would be brought about by trucking or rail traffic to move agricultural products to market. The "ag" trains could join the "coal trains" debate.

Brilliant idea. It looks like the Corps is going to do a cumulative impact statement on the "coal train" issue and there seems to be uniform agreement that it is needed. So let's make it a cumulative impact statement on "energy resources" and analyze both coal and hydro in the same document?

In deference to the Judiciary I haven't discussed Judge Redden and his decade long contribution to keeping this issue on the front burner. Hopefully the consultants all chipped in for a really nice retirement gift.

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

As usual little blulite you have God and truth on your side. Now let's make sure we extinctguish the rest of them pesky fish.

http://www.currentresults.com/Wildlife/Endangered-Species/Endangered-Fish/hundreds-801101.php

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 11:35 a.m. Inappropriate

What is it about fish ladders and downstream flow channels - if really generously built - that wouldn't work for salmon ? It would be a lot cheaper to spend some money balancing the uses of the river than carrying on this endless non-discussion. We all need electricity, transport and salmon. Is that such a hard situation to resolve ?

Steady

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Poor Swifty doesn't know the difference between "populations" and "species". Anyone more learned care to answer: Which salmon "species" are on the "brink of extinction"?

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Oooh little blulite. Always the pedant, never the poet. How sad to be little blulite, always right and righteous. Must be such hard work.

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for an excellent article highlighting Congressman Hastings’ heavy-handed legislation and the field hearing he held in August with California Congressman McClintock.

Representatives Hastings and McClintock are masters of fear-mongering and hyperbole. There are more than 80,000 dams in our country. Most, but not all, are valuable and useful. Regardless of what these congressman do or say, however, some of these dams are old, unsafe, no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally built, were mistakes and/or built illegally. And of course some simply don’t make sense to society anymore – their costs exceed their benefits and a healthy river and healthy fisheries and clean, cold water bring more value and support more jobs. When these types of dams are removed, services lost can and should be - and generally are - replaced - whether its energy, irrigation water, or transportation.

Every year, more Americans want to – and are willing to work to -maximize the benefits for their communities through river restoration. Mr. Hastings’ bill is a very bad idea – putting Congress in charge, locking in problems and uncertainty and locking out creativity and innovation. That said, Congressman Hastings and McClintock are fighting the tide. River restoration/dam removal projects will increase over time. The environmental, economic, community benefits - and public support - are too compelling.

Finally, a clarification. Save Our Wild Salmon has not taken a position on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan because we are a coalition and there is not unanimity on the Yakima Plan among our membership. In my conversation with Mr. Chasan, I mentioned the Yakima as one example of the many multi-stakeholder processes -- including those that led to river restoration projects on the Elwha, White Salmon, Rogue, Klamath, Penobscot, and Kennebec -- that would become or would have been infinitely harder to undertake if this bill were to become law.

Joseph Bogaard
Save Our Wild Salmon
Seattle, WA

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, an interesting article. Equally as interesting and thoughtful perspectives are provided in some of the comments above.

The Columbia is at the confluence of modern currents swirling around energy and food production, natural resource management and the regional and national economy. In the Basin today we see the benefits and impacts from hydroelectric power (cheap “carbon free” electricity, irrigations system, a transportation corridor, and all the related jobs vs serious impacts on salmon and other fish), and nuclear power (apparently permanent employment to clean up a mess and perhaps extreme reminder of risks inherent in Uranium and Plutonium as an energy source). Rural communities have also benefited from and are likely to see future impacts from carbon based fuels (decades of relatively cheap and independent rural transportation juxtaposed with coming changes in air and stream temperature and precipitation patterns that will affect agriculture based economy).

Coming up with long term management solutions for the Columbia River system capable of meeting multiple objectives must take into account the most likely future climate scenarios, or we could end up with very costly “fixes” to balance Dam operations and salmon recovery that really fix nothing. There are three major climate drivers in the Pacific Northwest, El Nino/La Nina cycle, Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and green house gas induced climate change (I.E. warming). El Nino/La Nina drives variability in temperature and precipitation on a several year cycle. Pacific Decadal Oscillation causes general cooling and warming of the region and the coastal ocean for periods lasting roughly several decades. It looks like the steep decline in salmon populations the late 1980s through the 2000s coincided with bad (warm) ocean and river conditions that accentuated stresses on wild and hatchery salmon related to all the other usual suspects, including; mismanagement of harvest, hatcheries, and of course habitat including conversion of a big river to a series of lakes with turbines and large cascades a their downstream ends.

It is generally acknowledged by climate experts that we are entering – or are currently in – a new “cold phase” of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which should support greater salmon productivity in both the ocean and our watersheds. This will both confound efforts to quantify the benefits of improved management of all the “H”s in the basin, and blunt the negative effects of climate change induced regional warming. A possible masking of the increasingly negative impacts of climate change for salmon populations in the region by a decadal climate “boost” is most concerning as we consider development of new management regimes for the hydro system in support of Endangered Species Act recovery efforts. Models for future water withdrawal needs of agriculture in the basin may also be inadvisably rosy if based current conditions rather than rapidly deteriorating future conditions, further compounding recovery challenges. My fear is that when we enter the next “warm phase” of the decadal cycle, it will come with a vengeance and climatic conditions that we have never experienced. Most future climate models indicate a shrinking of Chinook habitat to the higher elevations in the Columbia system – well above the Snake River dams and beyond most habitats currently accessible in the upper Columbia. So, Endangered Species Act related management solutions based on our current experience may be completely inadequate to meet future realities in the Columbia Basin.

In any case, there are well documented efforts underway to reduce impacts of harvest, hatcheries and habitat loss on wild fish populations in the Columbia Basin. Unless we anticipate removing ALL the dams from the river, hatcheries are likely to remain the principle means of mitigating salmon production lost as a direct result of the current hydroelectric system. Evaluations have been completed by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that resulted in hundreds of recommended reforms to the Columbia River hatchery system that, if implemented, could reduce hatchery impacts on wild fish populations. It is critical that those recommendations are enacted within a reasonable timeframe. To avoid harvest being the first and last ESA relief valve considered to offset future climate changes, we may need to explore more drastic habitat restoration actions, including engineered fish passage above dams currently preventing access to the upper Columbia River.

Posted Thu, Aug 30, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

If only we could convert the human calories we spend fighting over some sad little dams on the Snake River into electricity, we'd have a win-win solution. Ever take a look at how much habitat would be opened up by Snake River dam removal? I have. With vast majority of the historical habitat located above the Hells Canyon Complex, I honestly don't understand what extraordinary benefits the fish get from knocking out the Snake dams. I want salmon in the Columbia system for my grandkids, too. But one wonders whether more attention to passage would be the ticket.

Mr. Chasan, the Yakima agreements represent an opporutnity for a community traditionally divided on racial and economic lines to come together around pragmatic solutions that benefit endangered species (populations). "Too be fair..." one can find "some environmentalists" who condemn the existence of humanity. Why always the apologist for the extreme elements of the community?

Sounder

Posted Wed, Sep 5, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Probably since I read "Cadillac Desert" about thirty years ago I have generally absorbed the "no new dams" ethos. There are costs to power generation and barge transport that were not understood when many dams were built (and that probably goes double for so-called flood control dams). But the author here, having seen the problem wants to go back and undo mistakes. "Let's do it right this time" That does not necessarily make a good argument; the Interstate Highway system has had thousands of unintended and undesired consequences and if they had been known and properly understood in 1949 the System may not have been built. Does that mean we should tear it up? the question answers itself. We have built an economy around the Interstates and, for good or evil, we have to live with them. Demolishing existing structures uses energy and emits carbon dioxide too; if the demolition is done (and mitigated) it will introduce not the old ecological order but an entirely new one. Salmon are precious but they are not holy.

kieth

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