Truth About Snake River Dams

Fact or Fiction: Truth About Breaching the Snake River Dams

Debates and court battles about the future of the Snake River Dams have persisted for decades as opponents of the dams’ existence argue vehemently that breaching them is the only viable way to save Snake River salmon and steelhead, overlooking the integral role the dams play in the health of our economy. As a recent period for public commentary about these extreme measures comes to a close, it becomes clear that the best solutions for the region are those that reconcile salmon restoration priorities with the beneficial impacts dam operations have on the economic and cultural welfare of our state. The best solution will preserve and restore fish populations while protecting agriculture as one of the leading pillars of Washington’s economy.

Let’s take a look at the facts and the fiction behind conflicting opinions.

Fact: The Snake River dams are a vital part of the infrastructure supporting Washington’s $51 billion food and agriculture industry, which accounts for more than 13% of the state’s economy and provides more than 160,000 jobs. Wheat ranks as Washington’s third leading commodity, contributing more than $1 billion to the economy. The Columbia-Snake River System is the top wheat export gateway in the U.S. and the third largest in the world. In addition to grain, this river system moves nearly $3 billion worth of other commercial cargo.

Fiction: Barge transportation could be easily replaced. Barge transportation moves 60% of Washington’s $1 billion in wheat—not to mention other commodities and goods. One single tug pushing a four-barge tow can move the same amount of cargo as 140 rail cars or 538 trucks. To move the same amount of wheat currently transported on the Columbia-Snake River System annually would require 137,000 semi-trucks or 23,900 railcars.

Fact: Barge transport is, by far, the cleanest way to ship wheat and other agricultural goods. A tug pushing a four-barge tow moves one ton of grain 524 miles on a single gallon of fuel, compared to 202 miles by rail car and 59 miles by truck. That same tug produces one-third the emissions produced by rail and one-twentieth that of trucking per ton-mile.

Fiction: Eliminating barge transportation would have no effect on cost to produce wheat and other products. Consider fuel alone to transport just one ton of wheat. It takes more than twice as much fuel to move cargo via rail and nine times as much to move it by truck. Land-bound wheat farmers in areas of the country served only by rail have higher transportation costs than Washington farmers. Increases in transportation costs aren’t only absorbed by farmers—it affects the bottom line of our state’s economy too.

Fact: Hydroelectric power produced by Snake River dams accounts for 4 percent of the state’s electricity generation—enough to power nearly two million homes. Bonneville Power Administration would replace it with two gas-powered plants, increasing carbon emissions by as much as three million metric tons. That would be much like adding about half a million passenger cars to our roads at a time when Washington has failed to meet its emission reduction goals. Doing so would cost $274 million to $372 million and could increase electric bills by 12 to 15 percent. Contrary to opposing opinions, replacing the power would be necessary. It cannot be replaced through conservation and efficiency.

Fiction: It would be a simple matter to replace irrigation pipes and pump stations for irrigation from free-flowing water—or to transform farmland into pasture. Snake River dams provide irrigation for high-value crops on 60,000 acres of prime farmland. Water levels in a free-flowing river are not stable enough to provide reliable irrigation. The loss of irrigated farmland would result in substantial loss of farming revenue, as well as rural jobs provided by these large-scale agricultural operations.

Fact: Rather than breaching dams, other salmon and steelhead restoration methods can be implemented immediately, for much less money, with no detrimental impact on Washington’s industries. Even if the dams are breached, the lengthy process will not produce a timely impact on fish populations. The environmental impact statement isn’t expected until 2021. After extensive review of findings, estimates predict that it would take at least five years each to plan, engineer and decommission the four dams—at a cost as high $2.6 billion. Reclaiming and restoring estuaries, improving other habitats, additional improvements to fish passages, managing predation and especially preventing overharvest would be much more efficient ways to allocate $2.6 billion.

Fiction: The Snake River dams increase water temperature. These dams do not, in fact, heat water to temperatures unhealthy for fish. In contrast to claims, these are “run of river” dams, with constantly flowing water as opposed to “slack water pools” such as storage reservoirs. A fish ladder with a water cooling system was actually added to Lower Granite Dam to help mitigate effects of abnormally hot weather.

Fact: The Snake River dams did not cause the dramatic decrease in fish populations. By the time the lower Snake River dams became operational in the late 1960s and 1970s, Snake River salmon runs had already plummeted 95 percent from historic highs of 12 to 16 million to less than 600,000 annually. The decline can be attributed primarily to overharvesting beginning in the late 1800s and persisting through the 1970s in the lower Columbia and Pacific Ocean.

Fiction: Methods to improve fish passage past the dams have failed. Investments to improve fish passage and spawning habitat through the Columbia-Snake River System have paid off. Salmon and Steelhead are returning to upstream habitat in record numbers and juvenile salmon and steelhead are navigating the Snake River with survival rates of 97 percent and 99 percent, respectively. Several improvements have been implemented to assist fish in bypassing the dams in the last decade. In 2015, a record 2.5 million salmon returned upstream, the second highest run since 2000, preceded by the 2014 high of 2.66 million.