Breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River and replacing the services they provide to the Pacific Northwest could cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion, according to a draft report commissioned by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray.
The report, which compiles statistics from a slate of previous studies, pegs the cost of the breaching process at between $1.24 billion and $2 billion. Replacing the energy for the dams would cost an additional $9.3 billion to $18.6 billion, while offsetting losses in waterway transportation would cost $542 million to $4.5 billion. Finally, building additional irrigation infrastructure would cost between $188 million and $1 billion.
Some additional costs, the report says, still need to be identified.
The document is a draft copy of a highly anticipated report that will determine which side Murray and Inslee, both Democrats, will choose in a battle over the fate of four dams on the Lower Snake River. Their final decision, which is expected to come in July, will likely influence where other members of Congress align themselves on the issue.
Estimates by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Department of Fish and Game indicate salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake River system have declined more than 90% over the last 100 years. A hotter climate, habitat loss and lower natural production rates have all contributed to the reductions, but many tribes and environmental groups point to 14 federally operated dams as key causes.
Over the last 20 years, federal agencies have spent $17 billion to build hatcheries and install additional safety measures like fish ladders and diversion screens to the dams. These efforts, while improving conditions for fall chinook salmon and steelhead, have not been enough to reverse losses for the two other species at risk: spring-summer chinook and sockeye salmon.
Under pressure to end decades of salmon-related court battles, members of Congress have turned their attention to the idea of breaching four dams on the lower Snake River: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., have come out in favor of this approach, introducing a $33.5 billion “concept” to breach the four dams, compensate members of the region for their losses and put a 35-year moratorium on all current litigation.
Ten Republican members of Congress, however, are staunchly opposed to the idea, worried about the economic and energy impacts that the loss of the dams could have on the region. The dams produce over 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy and allow nearly 30% of the nation’s grain and oilseed exports to be transported up the river.
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This group — whose ranks include Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Butler, along with Idaho Rep. Russ Fulcher and Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz — introduced a bill Thursday that would prohibit federal agencies from making any modifications to dam operations that would restrict electrical generation or limit navigation on the Snake River. It would also bind these agencies to following the “preferred” plan for continuing to operate the dams laid out in an Army Corps of Engineers' 2020 Environmental Impact Statement.
“This is a concerted, intentional effort to underscore not only the importance of the dams, but to codify the operations of the dams,” Newhouse told Agri-Pulse.
Last October, Inslee and Murray announced their intent to come up with a joint state-federal plan for salmon recovery in the basin. They have set a July 31 deadline for their recommendations and will allow the public to submit comments on the draft report until July 11.
“We continue to approach the question of breaching with open minds and without a predetermined decision,” Inslee and Murray said in a joint statement.
The draft report, compiled by Ross Strategic and Kramer Consulting, says that replacing most of the services the dam provides is possible, but costly. If they are breached, the region’s barging and cruise industries will take a hit.
Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers and Bentz all criticized the Inslee-Murray report. Bentz, for instance, called it a “slap in the face to working Oregonians,” saying it is “based on predictable cherry-picked, a la carte science.”
The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a group representing ports, barge companies and agricultural producers, also denounced the report, calling it an "oversimplification of dam breaching."
“There are significant gaps in the report as it relates to understanding the reality of shifting to alternative transportation modes, permitting and developing the infrastructure that would be required, impacts to Northwest and U.S. farmers, and the true ability to meet our regional and national climate goals without the dams in place,” said PNWA Director Heather Stebbings.
The National Wildlife Federation, however, praised the document's findings, saying the report “clearly outlines the services the dams provide can be replaced — and improved — with infrastructure investments in energy.”
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