Today three federal agencies released a proposed management plan for federally-controlled dams in the Columbia River Basin. The Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation released an environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating the management of 14 dams and reservoirs that comprise the Columbia River Hydropower System. The statement proposes future management alternatives that affect communities along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, including one alternative that would remove the four federal dams on the lower Snake River.
The agencies’ preferred alternative is to increase the amount of water spilled over dams during the juvenile salmon migration to the ocean in the spring. While this action is anticipated to marginally increase salmon runs, the advantages for salmon would be modest compared to the dam breaching alternative.
Quinn Read, director of Northwest programs for Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“With southern resident orcas on the brink of extinction, there is no time to waste. Restoring salmon runs by breaching the four lower Snake River dams is necessary to put orcas back on the path towards survival, but to do this, we all need to work together. The Northwest doesn’t have to choose between orcas and clean energy. We can ensure a future for both wildlife and rural communities by working with stakeholders across the region to create a comprehensive plan that meets everyone’s needs. It’s time for our elected officials to step in and do what the Trump administration won’t and create a wholistic plan that restores the Snake River before we lose these orcas forever.”
Dam management in the Columbia River Basin
· There are several federal agencies that manage the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers: the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the energy from the dams to electric utilities; and the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, which operate and maintain the infrastructure of the dams.
· These agencies were ordered by a federal court to produce an Environmental Impact Statement updating the management of 14 federal dams in the Columbia Basin, which includes the four lower Snake River dams. This requirement is the result of decades-long litigation regarding the effect these federal dams have on salmon. Several organizations, including Native American tribes, environmental groups and fishing organizations, have repeatedly challenged the lack of a legal salmon recovery program.
· One of the leading causes of the decrease in Chinook salmon are the existence of hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin, which includes four dams on the lower Snake River. These dams directly affect salmon runs by providing physical barriers to both adult salmon returning to the river to spawn and juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.
· The lower Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. Before Europeans began colonizing the region in the early 1800s, roughly half of all the salmon returning to the mouth of the Columbia River were bound for the Snake River.
Dam removal and southern resident orcas
· Southern resident orcas are critically endangered, with only 72 left in the wild.
· These orcas, which live off the West coast, are facing extinction because their primary food source, Chinook salmon, have declined across the Northwest.
· While these once-epic salmon runs are a shadow of what they once were, salmon scientists have suggested that removing the four dams on the lower Snake River could recover these threatened salmon runs, resulting in approximately 1 million adult Chinook salmon returning to the mouth of the Columbia River every year.
· This would provide orcas with a substantial and critical source of food in their winter habitat range (the west coast of the U.S.). Leading orca scientists have said that orca recovery may be impossible if these dams are not removed.