On February 28, the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation released a highly anticipated draft environmental impact statement regarding operation of the dams in the Columbia and Snake River Basin. The report rejected increasingly loud and united calls from tribes, anglers, and the conservation community to tear down the four dams on the Lower Snake River in order to save the last of the salmon and steelhead returning to Idaho, saying such a move would too greatly destabilize the region’s power grid. A public comment period is now open.

Recent salmon and steelhead returns are as low as they’ve ever been. In 2018, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game temporarily closed their popular and economically important steelhead fishery across the entire state due to small runs coming up the Snake River. In 2019, they closed the entire Clearwater River Basin to Chinook salmon fishing, and a few months later they closed it to steelheading as well. While the state used to see more than 100,000 wild steelhead every year, these days the figures are closer to 10,000.

While numerous factors have likely contributed to these precipitous declines, such as overfishing, pollution, hatcheries, ocean conditions, and growing predator populations, many biologists believe the construction of the four dams on the Lower Snake in the 1960s and ’70s had an outsized effect. Populations have been in decline ever since. These dams, Lower Granite, Little Goose, Ice Harbor, and Lower Monumental, were built to allow barge traffic from Lewiston, Idaho to reach the Pacific Ocean in order to efficiently ship goods to Asian markets and elsewhere globally. As such, they turned the Lower Snake River from a flowing stream to a series of stagnant lakes. As a result, summer temperatures often rise to levels unhealthy for salmonids. Predators like smallmouth bass and northern pikeminnow have proliferated. Outmigrating salmon smolts often become disoriented without current, and returning adults are now regularly dying en masse from the hot, oxygen-poor water of the reservoirs. The federal government has spent some $16 billion on improving salmon passage over the years, with negligible results.

The Nez Perce Tribe has held the position since 1997 that the Lower Snake Dams should come down in order to restore their ancestral fisheries. More and more angling and conservation groups have begun to adopt that stance as well, believing the time has come for drastic measures to prevent the collapse of Idaho’s famous salmon and steelhead stocks. The debate has evolved in recent years as the southern resident killer whale pods have declined in correlation with their primary food source, wild Chinook salmon.

While the new draft EIS does consider the alternative of breaching the Snake River dams, the Army Corps, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Administration declined to advance the idea. These four dams produce between 730 and 1,100 megawatts of electricity, out of 8,500 total average megawatts from the 14 dams within the Columbia system. These federal agencies claim that the loss of the four Snake dams would double the risk of regional power shortages and increase wholesale power rates by up to 9.6%—raising energy bills across the Northwest. Agricultural interests across Idaho, Washington, Oregon are also very concerned about effects on irrigation and losing the low-cost route to ship their harvest to markets. The report instead recommends investments in improved fish passage at the dams, increased and fine-tuned top-spilling, a tactic that has found moderate success in recent years.

“Despite the major benefits to fish expected from MO3 [dam breaching], this alternative was not identified as the Preferred Alternative due to the adverse impacts to other resources such as transportation, power reliability and affordability, and greenhouse gas emissions,” the DEIS report says. “The region’s understanding of the impacts, both beneficial and adverse, of the Columbia River System will improve over time just as the perspectives and values of the people living in the Columbia Basin will continue to change as well. This EIS is not expected to end the regional debate on the future of the four lower Snake River dams. On the contrary, this EIS provides information and analysis to inform that future dialogue.”

Another report released last summer by ECONorthwest, however, found that public benefits of removing the dams actually outweigh the costs. The economic feasibility study demonstrated that transportation of agriculture products could be accomplished just as efficiently and cost-effectively on existing rail lines, and that effects on irrigation would be minimal because most farming in the region is not irrigated. The giant economic value of the region’s salmon and steelhead fisheries exceed the value of removal, the report claims. Its authors estimate only a $1 to $2 per month power bill increase for consumers across the region and a slight increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

The draft environmental impact statement is now open for a 45-day public comment period. The federal agencies will likely issue a final report and decision in September. Said decision will likely be challenged in court. The last five Columbia River system operations plans going back to 1995 have been thrown out by three different federal judges because they did not sufficiently address the issues facing Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead populations. This EIS was completed under a court order from U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in 2016 but is unlikely to satisfy his demand for stronger salmonid conservation measures.

Conservation groups broadly panned the draft EIS as a predictable retread of the last five rejected plans. The Wild Steelhead Coalition called it “deeply disappointing.”

“For decades, we’ve seen that the current management regime is failing salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers,” said Josh Mills, a Wild Steelhead Coalition board member. “This is why a broad coalition of anglers, politicians, conservationists, NGOs, tribes, and river communities are asking why the four lower Snake River Dams are not seriously being considered for removal before it is too late. Our iconic fish can’t wait decades longer for viable solutions. I don’t want to have a conversation with my kids about why we didn’t do something to save salmon and steelhead when the answer was apparent the whole time.”

Feature image via Tosh Brown.