Understanding The Illogic Of Dams

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The Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington. GREG VAUGHN / ALAMY

Jacques Leslie, a veteran writer whose specialty in one of the most-used sources of alternative energy makes him a natural for our platform, somehow has never appeared in our pages before. Dams and the rivers they change are a special case of our interest in conservation, and stories about dam removal are worth the read every time. Here is a clear explanation of one river’s history and future related to dams, and the prospects for dam removal–if you have not read one of these stories yet to understand the historic case for dams and their present illogical realities, this may be the one you want to read:

On the Northwest’s Snake River, the Case for Dam Removal Grows

As renewable energy becomes cheaper than hydropower and the presence of dams worsens the plight of salmon, pressure is mounting in the Pacific Northwest to take down four key dams on the lower Snake River that critics say have outlived their usefulness.

North America’s largest Pacific watershed, the Columbia River Basin, is in the midst of an environmental and energy crisis so severe that the most obvious, yet hotly contested, antidote — removal of four dams on the Columbia’s longest tributary, the Snake River — is gaining traction.

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The hydropower dams have been controversial since before their completion, between 1962 and 1975, because of their disastrous impact on salmon and the other 137 species that are part of the salmon food chain. Most of the Columbia Basin’s 250-plus dams have played roles in the salmon’s decline, but the four lower Snake River dams are prime targets for removal because their economic value has diminished and their absence would inordinately benefit salmon.

Even though the dams include ladders and other fish passage mechanisms, they have made salmon passage to and from the sea so difficult that populations have plummeted from already low mid-20th century levels. The dams effectively prevented all but a few salmon from carrying out some of nature’s most astonishing migrations, reaching spawning grounds in Idaho’s Snake River Basin as far as 900 river miles from the Pacific Coast and more than a mile in elevation. As a result, all three Snake River salmon species are endangered or threatened. Nevertheless, federal agencies and regional politicians have steadfastly declined to consider removing the Snake dams.

Now orcas off the coast of Washington are dying of starvation, the direct result of the near-absence of chinook salmon, the foundation of their diet. A whale mother that seemed to mourn her lost calf by carrying its carcass on her back for 17 days as she swam hundreds of miles drew so much international attention that a Seattle Times headline cited “the grief felt around the world.” Biologists have observed orcas with “peanut head,”a misshapen head and neck brought on by starvation. The three local orca pods are down to 73 animals, from a recent peak of 99 in the late 1980s. Given a dearth of reproducing females and a paucity of recent births, the biologists fear that their population has dropped below a sustainable level.

The orcas’ plight has refocused attention on the Snake River dams, for their removal offers the most likely prospect of generating chinook — and, in turn, orca — recovery. Even with its dams, the Snake River watershed supports 70 percent of the habitat available for chinook in the entire Columbia Basin — no other dam removals in the Columbia Basin would open as much habitat.

The case for keeping the dams has been weakened as solar and wind energy and natural gas have supplanted hydroelectricity as the Pacific Northwest’s cheapest sources of power. That development has sent the Bonneville Power Administration, the long-tentacled federal agency that markets electricity from the Snake River dams and 27 other federally owned Columbia Basin dams, into a tailspin. Nevertheless, Bonneville and the dams’ many supporters continue to resist removal because, they say, the hydropower system and the Pacific Northwest economy are inseparable.

The lower Snake River dams have enabled large quantities of grain to be shipped by barge from Lewiston, Idaho all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River, 465 miles away, making the ninth-largest city in the nation’s 39th most populous state the West Coast’s farthest-inland port. But in the last two decades, freight volume on the Snake corridor has declined by 70 percent, as farmers have turned to rail and trucks to move their grain to the West Coast, and container shipments dropped from 18,000 a year in 2000 to zero in 2017...

Read the whole article here.

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