I am writing to cast a scientist’s eye on recent Bulletin pieces about the Lower Snake River Dams that appeared in The Bend Bulletin on January 17, 2022. I am a PhD aquatic ecologist. I spent 13 years as Research Coordinator at Olympic National Park during removal of the two large hydropower dams on the Elwha River.
The four Snake River Dams pose complicated issues concerning hydropower and river commerce. But the disastrous state of the salmon fishery is not complicated. Unless these dams are removed, the fish are doomed. Millions were spent on “mitigations” and endless studies but now the clock has run out. Agency biologists say: “Without breaching, Snake River wild salmon and steelhead will continue rapidly to extinction.”
The editorial (December 28) and an op-ed by Kurt Miller (January 11) both mentioned a survey done by DHM Research sponsored by Northwest RiverPartners. Surveys can be useful. They can also direct an unsuspecting reader toward a pollster’s desired outcome. The DHM survey asked, “Do you support or oppose the use of hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River to produce electricity?” and “In general, do you support or oppose the use of hydroelectric dams to produce electricity?” These are both very uncontroversial questions. But then the survey found that, “Only 29% of respondents agreed that, We should make the decision to remove the dams to protect animals and their habitats.”
Sure, we all want reliable, carbon-free power. But these dams have an especially serious ecological cost: Namely the extinction of what used to be an astounding natural fishery. Specific points should have been made by the survey before asking that last question.
Dams are expensive to build and maintain. The Snake River Dams have been running at a loss for decades. Keeping them up and replacing outdated equipment is only part of the cost. The dam’s benefit to cost ratio is well below one, meaning they lose money over their lifetime. A billion dollars has been spent on these dams since 1990 trying to improve fish passage. Those efforts have failed and those costs are being repaid by BPA rate payers (tinyurl.com/sv9ynj22). Yet while these expenses keep mounting, costs of solar and wind energy are dropping. Publicly available information will quickly confirm these statements (damsense.org).
Some will argue that rivers are always running and do not depend on sun or wind. This is true. But as societies respond to climate change, renewable energy use is growing worldwide and costs for it are declining. It doesn’t matter whether wind blows on a particular day because the entire power grid is moving toward renewables and better battery storage. Detailed studies have shown that removing the Snake River dams will not lead to power shortages. Reserve capacity is already online and the cost of it is already decreasing. In fact, removing these dams will actually reduce consumer power bills.
If the survey had asked, “If we can remove the dams, rescue the salmon, and reduce consumer power bills, would you support dam removal?” I’m sure the answers would have been different.
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s plan to breach the dams (Greer op-ed January 12) was a wake-up call. Readers should educate themselves about it (simpson.house.gov/salmon/). Conservation groups have issues with it. But it is a good start and breaching can be quicker and less expensive than Simpson proposes. In any case, the matter is urgent. The fish cannot last much longer.
Working for years as I did on removing the Elwha Dams in Olympic National Park... I can testify to the tremendous inertia of public opinion. Most people seem to prefer to leave things as they are... even when science and economics suggest otherwise. At Olympic, the two 100-year-old dams were removed beginning in 2011. None of the doom and gloom scenarios occurred... and salmon were found above the dams only a week after the last barriers were removed.
Jerry Freilich, Guest Contributor
The Vocal Seniority
An Indivisible-affiliated progressive action group based in Bend, Oregon