Dams and Salmon Can Co-exist

The manager of a member-owned electric cooperative in the U.S. state of Idaho discusses why removing dams on the Snake River to boost sockeye salmon numbers may not be the best approach.

By Jo Elg

On June 22, 2016, the Idaho Statesman published a guest opinion from Ted Eisele that advocated for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River [Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite] as the best way to bring back sockeye salmon to Idaho. It appears his goal is to bring back sockeye in an effort to increase Idaho tourism – tourists can visit Idaho to catch the sockeye.

Overfishing beginning in the late 1800s – as well as mining, logging, agriculture and dams – have led to the decline in fish populations. A combination of factors contributed to their decline. And it is a combination of factors that is contributing to their return, including hatcheries, enhanced habitat and favorable ocean conditions.

Large-scale structural and operational changes have been made to ensure safe fish passage at these dams – to further improve fish passage routes and provide new safe passage structures. Recent fish returns demonstrate these changes have resulted in salmon surviving at the dams at levels seen in undammed rivers – 97% on average.

Eisele’s piece omitted the significance of these dams as a source of carbon-free renewable energy. A key benefit of the dams is clean air. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, without the Snake River dams, 3.0 to 4.5 million tons of CO2 would be added into the air every year.

Additionally, the dams are an exceptionally valuable resource in the integration of renewable wind energy. Because wind is variable, it must be complemented with other generation that can be increased when the wind dies down or decreased when the wind blows harder. Hydropower generation can quickly respond to the variability of the wind.

The article downplays the significance of the dams to inland navigation and power generation. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, about 9 million tons of cargo worth $3 billion transit annually through locks on the Snake-Columbia inland navigation system, including about 40% of the nation’s wheat. The ability to move cargo via the inland navigation system reduces high-carbon emissions from trucks and trains.

The Bonneville Power Administration records the average annual generation [capacity] of the four lower Snake River dams over the past 80 years at 1,000 MW. That’s enough energy to provide electricity to more than 800,000 homes – more than the population of the city of Seattle. Additionally, the dams provide more than 3,000 MW of critical peaking capability to meet peak winter loads.

The four lower Snake River dams play an important role in powering the Northwest. Only a comprehensive approach to salmon recovery that addresses all factors affecting salmon – including habitat degradation, hatchery impacts, and overharvest of returning adults – can put salmon on the path to recover. Recovery of salmon will not be achieved with a myopic goal of dam removal.

Editor’s Note: This article was published in the Idaho Statesman on July 14, 2016, and is reprinted with permission from the author.

Jo Elg is general manager of United Electric Co-op Inc. in Heyburn, Idaho, U.S., and has been in the electric utility industry for more than 25 years.

Further reading

On Nov. 29, 2016, Forbes published a viewpoint from James Conca, a scientist for 33 years and a member of Sierra Club:

Will removing large dams on the Snake River help salmon?

Probably not. Removing these dams and re-establishing normal fish runs will take almost 25 years. More immediate actions, for much less money, could happen in time to really make a difference.

Read more at bit.ly/2nFL8HC.

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