More to that ‘dam’ story than meets the eye

By Randy Suess

Many people have done a fine job explaining why removing the lower Snake River dams would hurt our farm economy and really not accomplish the goal of restoring the number of Southern Resident Killer Whales (orcas).

There are a couple of issues that I believe need to be covered to help people understand that we need those dams, but also want to consider other problems associated with dwindling orca numbers.

A lot of environmental groups claim that the dams are not needed for power production, because of wind and solar projects, and that they really don’t produce that much electricity. 

The facts show that the four dams together produce a little over 3,000 megawatts of carbon-free power. That is enough to power 300,000 homes. I discovered that the Bonneville Power Administration released a statement on March 4, where they asked customers to conserve energy. At issue was a strain on the region’s electricity system, or basically a shortage. I think very few people heard that we could actually be running short on electric production. Were you aware of this? This was caused by a situation when water flows on the river were low, the wind wasn’t blowing, and the sun wasn’t shining. At least the dams operate 24 hours a day, every day.

With more people moving to the Pacific Northwest, along with industries that want our cheap source of power, keeping the dams in place is extremely important. Unless we want to burn fossil fuels, which need to be eliminated by 2045 because of legislative action, you have to question where will we get the power that we need.

Another issue which hardly makes the press is the amount of sewage being dumped into the Puget Sound. Some of this pollution has come from Seattle. A flood shut down the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant in 2017 and dumped unknown millions of gallons of untreated waste into the sound. Emergency discharges on three occasions since the flood dumped 235 million gallons of untreated wastewater, including 30 million gallons of raw sewage.

It is not just the sewage that causes concern, but also the water runoff from the 4 million people who live around Puget Sound. Everything from gasoline, brake dust, oil, antifreeze, plastic, building materials and pesticides from lawns can end up in the water. What is being done to curb that pollution?

Seattle is not the most egregious culprit when it comes to pollution. That claim has to go to Victoria, B.C. For more than 100 years, they have been dumping raw sewage into the Salish Sea, which adjoins the Puget Sound. With a population of 400,000, they are dumping 31.8 million gallons of raw sewage per day into the water. That amounts to more than 11 billion gallons per year. They hope to have a treatment facility completed by 2020.

The bottom line of this pollution is that it is unknown what effect this may have on the declining orca population. It surely must be taken into account, along with Chinook salmon numbers, predators, ocean conditions, overfishing, increased spills at the dams and gill netting.

I hope we do not rush to judgement when it comes to finding solutions that will benefit us, the Snake River dams and the orcas.  

Randy Suess is a retired wheat farmer from Whitman County. He served on the Washington Grain Commission for many years. He is the president of the Whitman County wheat growers group.

Editor’s note: The original article appeared in our July 2019 issue of Wheat Life. In that printing, there was an error. The original text read, “The facts show that each dam produces 3,000 megawatts of carbon-free power.” That number is incorrect. All four dams—Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Ice Harbor—together produce a little more than 3,000 MW.