Despite calls by anadromous fish advocates for breaching the four lower Snake River dams, the federal agencies managing the Columbia River System are sticking with their plan to rely on increased spill to bolster the numbers of salmon and steelhead that make their way to central Idaho each year to spawn.

In May 2016, the U.S. District Court in Portland invalidated the biological analysis underpinning a 10-year operations plan for the 14 federal dams and reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake rivers. It was the fifth consecutive analysis rejected by the courts since the 1990s.

In response to the court order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration released an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a new plan on Feb. 28. The agencies’ preferred alternative was a three-year spill operation to release more water through the dams for fish passage in the spring during times when power generation is in low demand.

A final EIS released on July 31 confirms the agencies’ decision to proceed with the flexible spill plan.

According to the EIS, Snake River Chinook salmon and steelhead should see improvements in smolt-to-adult returns of 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively, relative to 2016.

Even so, the plan was immediately criticized, once again, by environmental groups.

“The federal failure to remove the dams despite clear supporting science is a disaster for our endangered salmon and orcas,” Sophia Ressler, Washington wildlife advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Dam removal is the only solution that protects these iconic animals.”

Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Justin Hayes said his organization was “disappointed and unsurprised by a fish recovery plan that fails to recover Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead.”

“The federal plan totally and completely fails Idaho and isn’t good enough for the many guides, outfitters, river businesses and communities in Idaho that depend on healthy runs of fish,” Hayes said in a press release. “It’s clear that the federal agencies are incapable of finding a solution that works for all stakeholders in the Northwest. Over 20 years and multiple attempts, they have failed to produce anything more than lawsuits.”

The federal agencies reported receiving almost 59,000 comments during a 45-day comment period following release of the draft EIS in February. Many comments addressed the issue of dam breaching, both for and against.

Since at least early last year, breaching advocates have questioned the dams’ economic viability, citing a widening spread between the price of Bonneville Power Administration electricity and market rates, looming high maintenance costs and flat demand for power in the region (See “Salmon advocates see potential for Snake River dam removal,” Idaho Mountain Express, March 20, 2019, bit.ly/33LW3rt).

A 51-page executive summary of the EIS addressed public comments making such claims.

First, the agencies noted that only Congress can order removal of the dams. They also stated that breaching would not allow the Corps of Engineers to operate the dams for their other congressionally authorized purposes of navigation, hydropower, recreation and water supply.

The summary states that the four lower Snake dams are among the least costly power-generating resources in the Columbia River system, providing more in power revenue than they cost to operate. It states that replacement of the power they provide would cost between $240 million and $500 million annually, versus $81 million in current operating costs. The summary notes that the 50-year estimated cost of generation for the four dams is $12.13 per megawatt-hour, much lower than the Mid-Columbia spot market energy prices, which averaged $37 per megawatt-hour in 2019 and $18 per megawatt-hour through May 2020.

Addressing comments that the turbines in the four lower Snake dams are antiquated, with some almost 60 years old, and will need expensive upgrades, the summary states that age is not the determining factor in deciding when to replace or rehabilitate turbines. It states that the earliest optimal turbine replacement date is likely to be in the 2030s, with most falling in the 2040s and 2050s. Additionally, it has not been determined if all six generating units at each plant will be replaced at those times, the agencies stated.

“Thus, the four lower Snake River Dams have the capability to produce low cost, clean energy for many more years before full turbine overhauls are needed,” the summary states.

The summary noted that many commenters pointed to data appearing to show the regional power system has surplus energy that could make up for the power lost if the four lower Snake dams were breached.

“Data showing that the region has surplus energy only describe energy supply during average conditions,” the summary states. “These data do not show whether power would always be available in time to meet consumer demand when average conditions are not occurring, such as during a heat wave, a cold spell, during multiple generating unit outages, or during a particularly low water year.”

The EIS contends that the dams play a “critical role” in keeping the likelihood of a blackout in the region at a very low percentage—currently around 6.6 percent annually, or one year in every 15. It states that breaching the four dams would more than double that risk of a blackout, to roughly one year in every seven. The EIS concludes that to keep the power system at current reliability levels, the Bonneville Power Authority or regional utilities would need to contract for or build substantial new resources.

Between 50 and 60 million tons of cargo are transported each year on the Columbia-Snake Navigation System. Addressing claims that the four lower Snake dams are no longer needed for navigation, the EIS acknowledges that barge movements on the Snake and Columbia rivers have declined somewhat over the past 20 years, mostly due to investments in shuttle rail terminals. However, it also states that shifting traffic to road and rail would increase costs to shippers and require substantial infrastructure investments.

“The river system allows farmers to export grain and other crops grown in interior parts of the United States to overseas markets,” the summary states.

Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented the plaintiffs in the 2016 lawsuit, noted in a statement that the Trump administration had recently finalized regulations that weaken the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and that the spill plan for the Columbia River System is guided by those new regulations.

“The new regulations are already under legal challenge,” True said. “It seems all but inevitable that this new plan will end up in court too.” 

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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