The future of the Columbia-Snake River System

The following is an op-ed written by Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05) and Representatives Dan Newhouse (WA-04), Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA-03), and Russ Fulcher (ID-01) published in the Spokesman-Review on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

The Columbia-Snake River System transformed our region from a dry, barren sagebrush to one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Thanks to this system, farmers in the Pacific Northwest are able to send their products across America and to countries all around the world. Not to mention our dams supply clean, reliable and affordable hydropower to every resident, family and business in our region.

Recently, there has been much conversation at the local, state and federal level over the future of our river system. Unfortunately, these policy proposals – most recently one with a price tag of $33 billion – and ongoing litigation threaten life as we know it in our region. Last year, we applauded the Columbia River System Operations (CRSO) Environmental Impact Statement, because the final EIS presented a balanced approach to dam management that preserves critical existing hydropower, flood control, irrigation and navigation resources, while supporting efforts to recover endangered salmon and steelhead.

We know that endless litigation has raised concerns among communities who rely on the Columbia Snake-River System and lower Snake River (LSR) dams about the future of dam operations. There should be no debate over the issue of whether the LSR dams can be breached through the judicial system. In a 2017 declaration, the Army Corps of Engineers stated, “The USACE derives its authority from Congress to operate and maintain the Columbia and Snake River projects … the Corps cannot significantly modify operations of its projects without Congress altering that authority (reauthorization) or removing authority (deauthorization).”

A second declaration reinforced this position, explaining, “The actions required to breach the LSR dam and reservoir projects cannot be characterized as a ‘suspension’ or ‘change’ in operations. The Corps does not have existing authority or funding to breach the LSR dam and reservoir projects because a breach would eliminate congressionally authorized project purposes.” The Corps further reaffirmed this fact in the final EIS.

Additionally, proposals that include breaching the LRS dams in the name of protecting salmon populations are flawed and fail to account for the sweeping impacts that would be felt across the region. The Columbia-Snake River System carries more than 50 million tons of cargo to and from the Pacific Ocean annually. That’s Washington- and Idaho-grown wheat, barley, potatoes, beans, onions and other commodities that are barged on the river system to Portland to be sent all around the world. Replacing just one barge would mean putting an additional 134 semi-trucks on our roads. Considering the number of barges that travel the river each year, that could mean over 135,000 additional semi-trucks on the road annually!

“[P]roposals that include breaching the LRS dams in the name of protecting salmon populations are flawed and fail to account for the sweeping impacts that would be felt across the region.”

Recent studies show that transitioning barge cargo to freight trains or semi-trucks would likely increase carbon and other harmful emissions by over 1.25 million tons per year – emissions that would only worsen some of the conditions that are leading to low salmon returns. With a fish passage rate greater than 95%, the LSR dams are not the greatest threat to fish survival. Ocean conditions, rising carbon emissions, predation and habitat loss are. These dangers to fish populations would only be worsened by removing the region’s clean, renewable hydropower resources.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has determined that the Columbia and Snake rivers may produce more juvenile salmon than they did prior to dams and development. They’ve also concluded that the declining number of salmon returning to these rivers is primarily due to degraded or nonexistent habitat. We all share the common goals of protecting and restoring the treasured Southern Resident killer whales that so many people from across the country travel to see. We know we must work together to restore chinook salmon and steelhead to preserve tribal identities and recreational fishing opportunities. Breaching the LSR dams is not the answer.

Instead, we must turn our focus toward solutions that get real results, like restoring water quality in Puget Sound, reestablishing critical fish habitat, addressing predation by seals, sea lions and birds, and improving technology at our dams to continue to make them even more transparent to fish. Salmon populations aside, the fact remains that the four LSR dams produce over 1,000 megawatts of clean energy annually. That’s enough to power over 800,000 homes – or a city the size of Seattle – with reliable energy at some of the most affordable costs in the world.

“Breaching the LSR dams is not the answer. Instead, we must turn our focus toward solutions that get real results, like restoring water quality in Puget Sound.”

Additionally, there is no alternative energy source that can be readily deployed to replace the hydropower produced by the dams. As a result, our region would be forced to turn away from clean, renewable hydropower and rely on natural gas to power the grid should the dams be breached. Even the cleanest and most efficient natural gas generation would increase carbon dioxide emissions in the region by as much as 2.6 million metric tons annually.

There is also the question of reliability. The LSR dams supply up to 25% of BPA’s operating reserves, which is critical for allowing utilities to meet unexpected changes in power demand. Peak Northwest power needs in the winter happen before the sun rises and after it has set. Not to mention in the winter months, wind generation is significantly reduced. In the event of a winter blackout, the LSR dams can produce more than 2,600MW of energy over a sustained period of 10 hours a day for five days. When the lights go out, hydropower is readily deployable.

The bottom line is that proposing a $33 billion plan to breach the Lower Snake River dams – with no guarantee that salmon populations will benefit – is a drastic, fiscally irresponsible leap to take; and efforts to scare communities into thinking a judge can breach any federal dam with the stroke of a pen are just plain wrong. The challenges before us are great, and to overcome them, we must build trust and engage in conversations about the importance of the LSR dams. Only then will we find real solutions that will benefit all users of the Columbia-Snake River System.

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