NOAA determines dams on lower Snake River must be breached

The final report from NOAA on rebuilding salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia basin is out; among other actions, it calls for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams.

It’s a move that was expected after a draft report was published earlier this year, which already had people on opposing sides digging into pro-removal and anti-removal camps.

"To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement," said Rep. Dan Newhouse, going on to say he’ll continue to seek science-based solutions backing salmon populations and dams.

What it means

The report isn’t policy, or law, but it lays out a defined plan of what needs to take place to ensure salmon and steelhead can be restored to ‘abundance’ by 2050.

The strategies are wide-ranging, but breaching the four lower Snake River dams is the most controversial part, due in large part to economic benefits of the dams including power generation, moving farm goods via barge and irrigation.

Other strategies include: habitat restoration, salmon hatcheries, reintroducing species, managing predators and improving water quality.

What the report does not do is lay out a strategy for funding sources or implementing the plan, which is key. U.S. Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee have previously said that benefits of the dams would need to be replaced before they could be breached. That means finding funding to not only remove the dams, but to offset the positives the dams provide.

RELATED: Report: Benefits of dams must be replaced before breaching

"The question is, ‘How do we get it done,’ that should be our focus," said Rob Masonis, Trout Unlimited’s vice president of Western conservation. "We should be shifting from a focus of whether the Snake River dams need to be removed to how do we do it in a way that keeps communities whole, and a way that replaces the benefits the dams currently provide."

Masonis backs removing the dams. He wants to move past the debate, and look ahead to funding mechanisms that could revitalize infrastructure while offering benefits to our salmon population. He pointed to a multi-billion dollar restoration effort of the Everglades, noting they’re ensuring clean water, roads, bridges and other assets while improving habitat for dozens of endangered threatened species.

"There isn’t really an alternative for those who think the problem is going away," said Masonis. "It’s not. We have an endangered species listing for these fish, meaning they’re protected under federal law. We have obligations to Northwest Tribes that signed treaties that give them the right to harvest these salmon and steelhead in their territories, we have to meet this obligation."

The price tag, however, will be steep—a previous draft report indicated the cost would likely land between $10 and $27 billion.

The fight isn't over

While Masonis is ready to move on, others aren’t settling on dam removal as the only option forward.

Rep. Newhouse’s statement alluded to as much after the report came down, writing: "I will continue to work on effective, science-based solutions to protecting our salmon populations AND our dams."

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, also said that the fight isn’t done. His group launched an ad campaign during the spring which rallied people against breaching the dams. Now that the final report is out, he’s not sure it’ll lead to any change.

"We’re disappointed with the outcome, but ultimately it doesn’t do anything legally," said Miller. "I don’t even think, from a policy perspective, it advances dam breaching."

Miller represents a large group of power generation, farming interests, local governments and others that benefit from the dams. While proponents of dam removal list climate change as one of the reasons to breach, Northwest RiverPartners say it’s the reason the dams need to stay: that replacing hydropower would lead to climate change, ultimately impacting losses to the salmon population on the high seas.

"Our estimation is that getting rid of the dams actually is a step backward,s given the severity of the climate change concern," he said. "So, we definitely believe salmon and dams can co-exist, and we think they probably will have to if we want to reverse climate change."

Replacing the lower Snake River Dams' power generation

In July, a study was published by E3 on replacing power that is currently generated by the lower Snake River dams.

The study notes that even with the dams in place, there will likely be growth in energy demand. The authors note that due to clean energy policy, growth and emerging technologies the forecast has a range that will depend on new technologies. They also assumed the dams would be breached in 2032 for most scenarios.

The findings estimated an annual cost of $415 million to $860 million – equaling a total cost of $11.2 billion to $19.6 billion. They also note that emerging tech in hydrogen, nuclear and carbon capture could allow replacement power generation to achieve a zero-emissions replacement, but there’s an uncertainty in when some of those technologies will be viable.

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Why it all matters

The plight of salmon in the Pacific Northwest is a story that stretches back decades. Not only are a number of salmon species on the endangered species list, but they are also the prey of another endangered species: the Southern Resident killer whales.

Washington has poured millions of dollars into salmon recovery annually for years. Those in support of breaching the dams believe that the money will be wasted unless greater actions are taken.

As the report notes in its introduction, the U.S. government has made commitments to tribal nations when it comes to salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin. The Biden administration has also outlined a plan to protect U.S. lands and freshwater resources in the next decade. That plan includes honoring tribal Treaty Rights and conserving rivers and streams.

Pacific Northwest tribes have been involved in the decision-making process that led to this final report from NOAA on the Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead.

The ATNI issued a resolution in early 2022, writing: "ATNI calls on the President of the United States and the 117th Congress to ensure that funding is set aside now at this critical ecological juncture for salmon and orca, to implement the bold actions for salmon and river restoration."

The resolution goes on to back framework to breach the four lower Snake River dams, based on a plan that was put forth by Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson – a plan which called for the breaching of the lower Snake River dams.

That plan isn’t without controversy of its own, though. Simpson, a Republican, drew rebuke from fellow Republicans in Congress from the Pacific Northwest, including Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Cliff Bentz. His plan also drew the ire of some environmental groups.

How political interests align will matter moving forward, as any move to breach the dams will require major funding from Congress.