Dam breaching back as scoping hearings continue

By Diana Carlen
WAWG Lobbyist

Once again, the issue of breaching the Snake River dams is back on the table. On Sept. 30, 2016, the federal government announced more than a dozen public hearings on the scoping process for a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for 14 dams in the Columbia River Basin.

The 14 dams within the Columbia River Basin have been the focus of several lawsuits challenging the impacts the dams cause to salmon and steelhead. Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ruled that the government’s plan to recover salmon and steelhead throughout the basin failed to address the dams’ effect on the fish. The judge’s order requires the agencies to conduct a new environmental review to evaluate all reasonable options for achieving the goals of the hydrosystem (power generation, flood control, navigation, irrigation and recreation). The first step in this three-year review process are several public “scoping” meetings across the region to identify the issues and scope of alternatives to be raised in the EIS. The scoping process is expected to result in a draft EIS in the fall of 2019.

Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) members have been attending the hearings to voice their opposition to breaching the Snake River dams and to educate the public about the multiple benefits the dams provide to our region. The Snake River dams are part of the Columbia-Snake River System, a 465-mile river waterway that is the top wheat export gateway in the U.S. and the third largest grain export gateway in the world. More than half of the wheat barged on the river system moves through one or more of the dams. To move the same amount of wheat by road or rail would require 137,000 semitrucks or 23,900 rail cars, leading to increased fuel consumption, increased emissions and increased wear and tear on our transportation infrastructure.

Besides grain, nearly $3 billion worth of commercial cargo is moved across the river system, giving markets as far away as the Midwest access to international markets. Barging is one of the lowest cost, most environmentally friendly modes of transportation we have. A typical four-barge tow moves the same amount of cargo as 140 rail cars or 538 trucks using just a fraction of the fuel.

In addition to providing businesses with affordable, reliable transportation to move goods to market, the dams provide the region’s largest source of carbon-free, renewable electricity. The majority (90 percent) of the Northwest’s renewable energy comes from hydropower dams which provide not only clean and reliable power at an affordable rate (much cheaper than wind and solar) but attracts businesses to locate in our region.

Nearly 60 percent of the energy produced in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana is generated by hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The dams work in concert with other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, to balance the grid when those renewables are not producing. If the dams were removed, it would take two nuclear, three coal-fired or six gas-fired power plants to replace the average annual power they produce, leading to the increased production of greenhouse gases. Additionally, a 2015 Bonneville Power Administration analysis showed that the cost to replace the power the Snake River dams produce would be $264-$350 million annually at current market prices.

In addition to attending the public scoping hearings, WAWG will be submitting written comments. Anyone who is interested can also submit comments through Jan. 17 via email at comment@crso.info.