Draft statement recommends continued operation of four Lower Snake River dams

The Preferred Alternative in a draft of the Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement, released Feb. 28, involves the operations, maintenance and configuration of the 14 federal dam and reservoir projects that comprise the Columbia River System. This document has been much-anticipated, as it is expected to give direction on the future of the four Lower Snake River dams and hydro projects that have been a target for potential removal.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration released the draft EIS for a 45-day public review and comment period. The U.S. Congress authorized the Corps and Reclamation to construct, operate and maintain the 14 federal dams as one interconnected system to meet multiple specified purposes, including flood risk management, navigation, hydropower generation, irrigation, fish and wildlife conservation, recreation and municipal and industrial water supply. BPA is authorized to market and transmit the power generated by coordinated system operations.

The Preferred Alternative comprises operational and structural measures that allow federal agencies to operate the integrated system to meet congressionally authorized purposes and EIS objectives, including those that benefit Endangered Species Act–listed species. The draft EIS identifies and evaluates a no-action alternative and five alternatives, one of which includes breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

The four dams in particular question are Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Granite and Lower Monumental. Together, the four produce an average of 1,024 average MW of electricity annually, which is about 4% of BPA’s annual energy portfolio. The four Lower Snake River projects have the ability to produce 3,033 MW of electricity at peak capacity for a short period of time if there is both high water storage and high river flows, according to the Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Engagement Report released in late 2019.

The draft EIS is the result of more than three years of regional collaboration between the lead federal agencies and more than 30 tribes and state, federal and county agencies in this National Environmental Policy Act process. “The draft EIS represents a remarkable collaborative effort to gather public input and information for a current and thorough analysis of options that meet the goals of the EIS and our future responsibilities to the region,” said Brig. Gen. D. Peter Helmlinger, Northwestern Division commander, Corps.

The last comprehensive update to the Columbia River System operating strategy was issued in 1995. This draft EIS responds to the need to review and update management of the system and evaluate impacts to resources in the context of new information and changed conditions in the Columbia River Basin. The document contains detailed analyses of environmental, social and economic benefits and consequences to affected resources of the alternatives considered for improved integrated operations.

Built and put into service between 1938 and 1976, these dams provide flood risk management. The river’s navigation system is an important component of the regional economy, allowing farmers to export grain and other crops to overseas markets. Farmers depend on system water to irrigate crops. The system is the source of economical, reliable and clean power generation and provides the region with some of the least greenhouse gas-intensive electricity in the country. And the Columbia River and its tributaries provide water for millions of people throughout the river basin.

The final EIS is expected in summer 2020.

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