Think Out Loud

Two new federal reports look at removing Snake River dams to help endangered and threatened fish

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
July 19, 2022 10:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, July 20

The Ice Harbor Dam in southeastern Washington state is one of the four dams on the lower Snake River which would need to be removed to save endangered and threatened steelhead and salmon, according to a July 2022 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Ice Harbor Dam in southeastern Washington state is one of the four dams on the lower Snake River which would need to be removed to save endangered and threatened steelhead and salmon, according to a July 2022 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bonneville Power Administration

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Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report recommending the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington to boost the recovery of endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead in the region. Another report commissioned by the Department of Energy found that replacing the lower Snake River dams and the renewable energy they provide would cost between $11 billion and $19 billion. Meanwhile, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) are expected to release a final report this summer on whether they think the dams should remain or be breached. Courtney Flatt, a correspondent for the Northwest News Network, joins us to talk about the political and economic obstacles to removing the dams, a move which would require congressional approval.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. The Snake River dams should come down. That is according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOA]. NOA  released a new report last week recommending the removal of the four lower Snake River dams to help endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead. Meanwhile, a separate report commissioned by the US Department of Energy found that replacing these dams along with the renewable energy they provide could cost as much as $19 billion dollars. Courtney Flatt is a Correspondent for The Northwest News Network. She’s been covering these dams for years and she joins us with more details. Courtney, welcome back.

Courtney Flatt: Hi Dave,

Miller: Hey there. So I thought you could start just by giving us the basics. What are these four lower Snake River dams and what do they provide, to whom?

Flatt: The lower Snake River dams are in Southeastern Washington and they’re on the largest tributary along the Columbia River. The dams make Lewiston, Idaho, the farthest inland ports on the West Coast. It’s something like 465 miles from the ocean and they allow barges to carry products like wheat, which is grown in Washington’s Palouse Region, and more than 10% of all the wheat grown in the US goes through the Snake River dams. The dams also provide carbon free energy. The Bonneville Power Administration says the four dams helped balance the grid during last summer’s heatwave and they also provide irrigation to farms near the Tri-Cities, where there are vineyards and orchards and real crops.

Miller: What are the big arguments in favor of breaching these dams?

Flatt: The biggest argument all comes down to salmon. Biologists say, business as usual for the dams will end up further harming salmon runs. So as the climate changes, high water temperatures and low stream flows will make it harder and harder for Salmon to survive. We’ve kind of seen a preview of this in 2015 when around 99% of Sockeye salmon died before reaching Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley. And that’s really a big problem for Tribes. Salmon are our first food for Indigenous People, which means they’re an incredibly important food source. I talked to Don Sampson and he’s the spokesperson for Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance. And a little while ago, he talked about how this affects the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Don Sampson:  Salmon, that their livelihood depends on, is being exterminated. It’s time that people take a look at that and say, ‘Wait, this is a social justice issue. This is a human rights issue,’ with a requirement that salmon populations be abundant and harvestable. Over the past 20 years. The Umatilla Tribe, which has eight major river tributaries in the Snake, have been able to harvest only one hundred salmon over twenty years for some three thousand  people. That equates to about five salmon per year for three thousand people, Tribal Members.

Flatt: Sampson says the best way to help salmon is a free flowing Snake River and lots of environmental groups and salmon advocacy groups support this position as well.

Miller: What is the source of the biggest opposition to the removal of these dams?

Flatt: There’s several different oppositions, lots of farmers who rely on barging along the Snake River oppose the dam removal. Many irrigators in the tri-cities say their irrigation infrastructure needs to reach the river. And there’s also some debate as to whether the carbon free energy from the dams can be replaced and not cost too much. That’s a concern for Kurt Miller, he’s the Executive Director of Northwest River Partners, which advocates for the dams to remain in place.

Kurt Miller: This is a generational issue in terms of the reliable, clean, affordable future of the electric grid, in terms of increasing electricity costs in a really significant way, making it much more difficult for us to achieve our clean energy goals as a region, and in terms of what it could do to grid reliability and the potential for blackouts.

Flatt: And now that’s kind of all up for debate, especially with some of these recent reports that have just come out that you mentioned.

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Miller:  If these dams were breached, what would replace their electricity generation?

Flatt: That all seems to depend on how quickly emerging technologies are ready to go. The Bonneville Power Administration just commissioned an independent report and that report looked at different scenarios that could replace the dams. It found that replacing the energy that the dams generate could be possible, but it could also be pretty costly. It would really rely on some of these emerging technologies, such as small modular nuclear reactors to come online. It’s pretty uncertain when that will happen. The report found that it could cost between 11 billion And $19 billion, which is pretty in line with the same price that earlier studies have estimated.

Miller: Organized opposition to these dams is not new. And so far it hasn’t amounted to the breaching of the dams. What has changed in recent years?

Flatt: Yes, this has been a debate for decades. But recently the ball, like you say, it really has started moving. It seems to be getting more consideration recently as to how to replace the services the dams provide, not just how hard that process will be. And a lot of this movement involves a lot of reports from a lot of different groups and politicians. It kind of initially started in 2015 when a federal judge ordered the agencies in charge of managing the dams to take a hard look at removing the four dams on the lower Snake. And that was all in an effort to better protect salmon. In the end, that federal report recommended keeping the dams in place, but about a year after that came out, US Representative Mike Simpson from Idaho came out with an outline of how to replace all the services the dams provide, and that led a lot of groups to start talking about solutions rather than just, kind of a black and white view about whether the dam should stay or go. And now there are these two new reports from the Bonneville Power Administration and NOA.

Miller: How significant are they? These new reports that were announced last week?

Flatt: The NOA report is significant because NOA fisheries is in charge of protecting and conserving and recovering threatened endangered salmon runs. And the NOA report says that these dams need to be removed to bring back healthy and harvestable salmon populations, which is a higher goal than just removing certain salmon from the endangered species list. It’s kind of the first time that this sort of report has come out from NOA and the Bonneville Power Administration Report, Bonneville markets the power generated at the dams and so it’s a different step for BPA to say removing these dams is feasible and costly.

Miller: These recent reports, they were released together by an office connected to the White House. Does that mean that the Biden Administration is now onboard with dam removal?

Flatt: The Biden administration has not endorsed the actions outlined in either report. But this is the first time that an administration has really so openly considered the possibility of removing these four dams.

Miller: What are Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Washington Senator Patty Murray, both Democrats, doing about this right now?

Flatt: After that first plan that Congressman Mike Simpson came out with, that I talked about earlier, Murray and Inslee decided to do their own study. And so a draft report from that process just came out last month, and that report didn’t take a position on removing the dams, but it found that removing the dams would be the best option for salmon and the best way to maintain treaty obligations for the federal government. A final report with public comment is expected by the end of this month and then after that Murray and Inslee will consider that report and kind of make their recommendations later this summer.

Miller: Can you give us a broader sense for the politics here? I mean, it doesn’t seem that it’s quite as simple as Democrat versus Republican.

Flatt: Not quite, although it does align pretty consistently along party lines when you look at Washington’s political leaders. Many Republican Congress members are strong supporters of keeping the dams in place like Representative Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers who represent the districts where the dams are located. But it was pretty notable when Mike Simpson, who is a Republican, was the first to come out with a plan to remove the dams. He previously hadn’t supported the idea. Then he spent a couple of years talking to various groups and he decided the dams needed to come out. Then he came up with a way to potentially make it happen while replacing all the services the dams provide and that really opened up the doors for a few people to think that maybe the dams could come out.

Miller: What would actually need to happen before these dams were removed?

Flatt: It would be a really long process. There’d have to be Congressional approval of breaching the dams and there’d have to be funds in place to remove or alter the dams and funds to replace the services they provide. There’d have to be consultation with Tribes and federal and state agencies along with other interest groups and more infrastructure would have to be built. It would just really take years and years.

Miller: Courtney, thanks very much.

Flatt: Thank you.

Miller: That’s Courtney Flatt, a Correspondent for the Northwest News Network, talking to us about the current state and the potential future for the four dams on the lower Snake River.

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