Columbia River: Why it may be time to let some dams tumble

Columbia River dams threaten salmon. Credit: Earle Klosterman Wooster/Flickr

Second of two stories

The federal government's Biological Opinion on operation of its Columbia River system dams, issued in January and challenged — inevitably — by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups last month, skips over an inconvenient fact. As average water temperatures rise, the only spawning streams in the interior Columbia Basin cool enough for salmon spawning may lie in the mountains of Idaho, above the four lower Snake River dams.

Stream temperatures in Western Washington and Oregon may not rise much, but inland, climate experts foresee fish dealing with increased "thermal stress." In general, water temperature decreases with elevation, so Idaho streams a mile or more above sea level may give some fish populations their best chance. Redfish Lake, named for the sockeye that became the first Columbia River salmon population on the endangered species list, lies at 6,547 feet. But fish that spawn there must pass those four dams.

Salmon advocates have long argued for breaching the dams. And they are becoming impatient with the endless attempts of the federal government, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, to avoid disussing the issue.

A few years ago, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society passed a resolution saying, "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."

The conservation and fishing groups' complaint regarding the current Biological Opinion (BiOp) doesn't raise the issue of breaching directly. It does cite a 2009 letter from now-retired U.S. District Judge James Redden, who rejected the last three federal BiOps, to the attorneys on both sides. Redden complained that the previous, rejected BiOp, which the current version largely mirrors "does not articulate a rational contingency plan for threatened and endangered species in the event that the proposed habitat improvements and other remedial actions fail to achieve the survival benefits necessary to avoid jeopardy.” Redden suggested 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.” No one took him up on that.

The new complaint does call for an environmental Impact statement (EIS), which would require a listing and assessment of alternatives. The plaintiffs think that any honest weighing of alternatives would at least put breaching on the table.

The plaintiffs increasingly think the benefits of the dams have always been exaggerated and the costs of removing them minimized. They think that the economic advantages of keeping the dams are actually shrinking. If there's an honest analysis done," Bogaard says, "it will quickly become evident that the dams have far less value and far greater cost than we've been told."

The dams generate power and support a lock system that allows barge traffic from Portlland or other ports near the Columbia's mouth to reach Lewiston, Idaho, which once overlooked the free-flowing Snake River and now overlooks the lake backed up behind Lower Granite Dam. The Port of Lewiston calls itself "the most inland seaport on the West Coast."

The amount of carbon-free power generated is significant — 4 percent of the dam system's total — but not crucial. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's current regional plan suggests that if it disappeared, Northwestern ratepayers would never know the difference: The region's average cost per kilowatt-hour would rise a bit, but because the region would use electricity more efficiently, the number of kilowatt-hours will go down. So, that even without those dams, the average monthly electric bill would be lower than it is now.

The barge traffic wouldn't be widely missed, either, critics say. They argue that barge traffic has been declining, and that despite brave promises made years ago, the port has never become self-sustaining. In fact, they say, that the port requires annual tax revenues to stay in business. "That's not true," says Port manager Dave Doeringsfeld. He says that Lewiston's marine operations are self-sustaining; the port uses tax revenue to finance its economic development work. (Not that levying taxes makes Lewiston unique: The Port of Seattle has been criticized for the amount of tax money it raises every year.)

The port's container-cargo business, never large, has been declining for years. Doeringsfeld explains that reflects Lewiston's dependence on the port of Portland, and Portland's extended troubles over labor issues. Some goods are still being shipped in containers, he says, but some shippers are forced to send it by truck.

One hope for a big new port operation seems to be largely disappearing. Controversial "megaloads" — huge steel modules made in Korea and bound for the Alberta tar sands — were supposed to have traveled up the Columbia to Lewiston, then on a long truck journey to Canada. The first modules did arrive in Lewiston four years ago, but a plan to send hundreds of them along narrow, scenic Highway 12 has been fought successfully in the courts. In the meantime, the original contention that those giant modules couldn't be cut down to form smaller loads and that barging was essential have proven false.

The shipper, Imperial Oil, Canada's largest oil company, which is 70 percent owned by Exxon Mobil, has cut some of the loads in half so they can fit under freeway overpasses, loaded them onto trucks in Vancouver, Washington, and sent them on more accommodating roads. The port has budgeted more money for legal expenses of keeping Highway 12 open to large loads, but plants in Montana have started fabricating the modules a lot closer to the tar sands, which may soon make the megaload issue moot. However, Doeringsfeld says, that oil development will be going on for decades. At this point, he said, "The Port of Lewiston is aggressively marketing moving cargo to the interior of the U.S. That could mean pumps, could mean drill pipes. …  It does not mean megaloads."

The barge system's main raison d'etre has been shipping grain from a private loading facility in Lewiston down to the export terminals at Portland and Kalama. Critics point to the fact that farmer cooperatives have invested in a "unit loading" facility that will make it easier and cheaper to load their grain into rail cars, bypassing the barging. Doeringsfeld acknowledges the increased investment in rail, but he notes that there's an expansion at the barge loading operation in Lewiston, not a contraction. Obviously, he says, the barge loaders, too, are "looking forward to a future of growth." And there are worries across the region about agricultural shipments losing ready access to rail as more of the major railroads look to add lucrative coal and oil train business.

Balanced against this declining traffic are the costs of dredging a shipping channel, and the cost and risk to Lewiston, which now lies below water level and is both protected and cut off from the water by levees. There has long been an assumption that barges are cheaper and more energy-efficient that land transportation. It turns out that they aren't. A 2001 study by Washington State University researchers found that rail had a 24 percent advantage over barge, so that "a Snake River drawdown would decrease energy consumption." Assuming the rail system could handle the increased load, "looking narrowly at energy and emissions environmental concerns, a drawdown of the Snake River for salmon restoration does not have a negative impact."

Barging isn't exactly a free-market solution. Nature provides the river, but no one could push a barge up it without a whole lot of public dollars. Forget the capital needed to construct the dam and lock system in the first place. All operation and maintenance costs come out of the U.S. Treasury. And while some utilities bemoan the loss of power — and power revenue — the results from spilling water over the dams for fish, you don't hear much about the power foregone in order to run water through the locks for barges.

Among other things, the public pays to dredge sediment out of the shipping channel. Sediment keeps washing down from the tributary Clearwater and Salmon rivers. (Lewiston stands at the junction of the Clearwater and the Snake.) The reservoir is already one-third filled in. Only Corps dredging has preserved the 14-foot shipping channel. The Corps hasn't dredged for almost nine years. Already, grain barges are "light loaded," that is, filled to less than full capacity so that they won't scrape bottom. If nature takes its course, the port won't even be accessible. The Corps has proposed more dredging. It issued then withdrew an environmental impact statement on a new sediment management plan. An independent peer review found a lot of technical problems in the plan and draft EIS. The document wasn't likely to survive litigation. To avoid fish impacts, dredging can be done only from December through February. The Corps had hoped to dredge last winter. Now, it presumably hopes to do so this winter. A new final EIS is due this summer. Chances are it will wind up in court.

Back in 2002, the Corps estimated the cost of removing the lower Snake dams. That study, published that year, came to different conclusions than some of the others: It estimated infrastructure costs of up to $532 million, added yearly shipping costs of $21 million, and increases in household electric bills of up to $6.50 a month. Or maybe not. The former deputy district engineer of the Corps' Walla Walla District, Jim Waddell, says that basically, the numbers featured in the summary are misleading. The real figures are buried in the appendices, and some need revision, but they're there.

Waddell, who was the Corps' top civilian employee in Walla Walla, has created a graph that shows right now, the costs of keeping the dams and the costs of breaching them are almost equal. As you project those costs into the future, though, the lines diverge. The costs of breaching stay relatively level. The costs of keeping the dams start to soar. Regular expenses, which include dredging, routine repairs, running the hatcheries built as compensation for the dams' effect on salmon, etc., rise at a steady rate, but the line periodically gets bumped up by big-ticket replacement of turbines and of the hardware installed to help fish get past the dams.

Long term, getting rid of the dams not only improves the chance of restoring Snake River salmon populations, Waddell argues; it makes good economic sense.

He points out that the benefits of selling power from the dams are very diffused, while the econmic benefits of removing them — which would include vastly increased recreational spending in nearby communities — would be highly localized. Someone should find that politically attractive.

Waddell says he spoke recently with Corps officials in Washington, D.C., and thinks that they may find the lower cost of dam removal attractive. The Corps' budget is tight, and he figures that people at headquarters, unmoved by what some call the "hydro halo" that leads their colleagues in the Northwest to favor dams, would look at the numbers — if anyone asked them to — and conclude that it made more sense to pull the plug. And he thinks that someone should make that decision soon.

Environmental groups have necessarily been playing a long game. At this point, he thinks, they're making a mistake. Why lose money for another 10 years, he asks. Why take a chance on losing the fish? And why blow money on ways of saving the fish that are less controversial but will do less good? "On the lower Snake," he says, "there's a cheaper way to save salmon."

Doeringsfeld, naturally, sees things differently. He refers to figures that show 98-percent spring chinook survival rates at some dams and wonders if the incremental benefits are worth the economic costs. But he knows this isn't simple. There are so "many people involved in this issue," he says. "It's not much different from Middle East peace."

How to cut through the webs of vested interest? How to end the decades of litigation?

An honest assessment of costs and benefits couldn't hurt. That's basically what the plaintiffs are asking for. They may get it eventually, but, at least at the current rate, they won't get it any time soon.

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