Agencies plan to study federal dams

After nearly two decades, the federal government is taking another look at how to operate and maintain its network of dams through the interior Columbia Basin.

The dams — 14 in all — are critical to the way of life in the Pacific Northwest. They provide for the transportation of goods, irrigation of crops, recreation for boaters and anglers and enough hydroelectricity to power roughly 7 million homes. Agencies also are responsible for protecting endangered fish, wildlife and other cultural resources.

Now, thanks in part to a court order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are developing an updated environmental impact statement, or EIS, that will impact everything from salmon survival to the cost of flipping on the light switch.

The process is underway with a series of public scoping meetings in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The Columbia River System includes Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams on the main stem Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, as well as Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the Lower Snake River.

Steve Fischer, environmental team lead for the Army Corps Northwest Division in Portland, said the open house-style meetings are intended to gather input on issues that will be analyzed and potentially incorporated as part of the final EIS.

“This is a key time in the process,” Fischer said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about what we think. It’s about what the public thinks.”

Public comments for the scoping period are due Jan. 17, 2017. The next meeting will be held Monday from 4-7 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express in Pasco.

The agencies will have until spring 2020 to come up with a draft EIS for further review. A final document won’t be completed until 2021.

Fischer said the five-year process will likely yield a range of alternative plans that could include structural modifications at any one of the dams. The hot topic, however, is whether to breach one or more of the four Snake River dams to improve fish passage.

“We fully expect (dam breaching) to get a lot of interest,” Fischer said.

The controversy was reignited earlier this year, when U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon rejected the feds’ latest biological opinion to protect salmon runs. Also in his decision, Simon ordered the agencies to update the Columbia River System EIS, which was last approved in 1997.

Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, said breaching the Snake River dams is imperative to saving wild salmon. She cited a study by Earthjustice, an environmental public interest organization, that determined more than 70 percent of human-caused mortality to Snake River salmon was caused by difficulties at the dams.

“That’s at the heart of this whole process,” Goldberg said. “This is a moment to come together as a Northwest community and tell the government why you care about strong Northwest salmon runs, how they affect your family and how they affect your business.”

Columbia Riverkeeper is part of Save our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation and river groups dedicated to bolstering sustainable fish returns.

But managing the Columbia River System is about more than just fish and wildlife.

The federal dams are authorized for multiple other uses, including: flood risk management, hydro power, irrigation, navigation and recreation. For example, the Snake River dams churn out an average of 1,022 megawatts of electricity annually — enough to power a city the size of Seattle.

According to BPA, it would cost ratepayers between 550 million every year to make up that lost power capacity.

Movement of Northwest products is another factor to consider in breaching the Snake River dams. Heather Stebbings, government relations director for the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said the amount of cargo moving on the river is on the rise — including 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports that pass through the dams.

In 2014, Stebbings said there were 4.3 million tons of cargo that shipped on the Snake River. Without the dams, those goods would be forced onto trucks or rail, with 4.3 million tons equaling approximately 43,600 railcars. That, in turn, would mean higher fuel emissions and shipping rates for producers.

“We are very opposed to removal of the dams,” Stebbings said.

The operating agencies also argue they have made critical upgrades at the Snake River dams that have pushed juvenile chinook and steelhead survival rates up to 96 percent.

“The fish technology over the past 20 years has phenomenal on the system,” said Fischer with the U.S. Army Corps.

Since the last EIS in 1997, fish ladders have been installed at all eight lower Columbia and lower Snake dams.

Meanwhile, the agencies say that between 2007 and 2015, they helped to restore 400 miles of stream habitat along river tributaries, a length that would stretch from Portland to Boise.

Despite these investments, some years continue to wreak havoc on sensitive salmon populations. The combination of drought and heat in 2015 led to rising water temperatures around dams that killed more than 90 percent of returning sockeye to the basin, and resulted in daytime fishing bans across the region.

One of the most effective steps to avoiding a similar disaster in the future, salmon advocates say, is to remove the four Snake River dams, thereby opening up passage and keeping streams cold and healthy for future generations of fish.

“Our decisions today set in motion that future,” Goldberg said.

Public scoping meetings continue into next month in Oregon, with stops Dec. 6, 7 and 8 in the The Dalles, Portland and Astoria respectively.

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