What wild Snake River salmon will cost

Catie Clark//July 8, 2022

What wild Snake River salmon will cost

Catie Clark//July 8, 2022

Ice Harbor Dam, one of the four dams on the lower Snake River operated by the Bonneville Power Administration. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

What can $1.25 billion buy you? Buckingham Palace in London, one third of either a Virginia-class fast attack submarine or the Boston Red Sox, or one year of salmon restoration costs in the Columbia River Basin, including those infamous four dams on the lower Snake River that environmental advocates want removed for the sake of the salmon that travel the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers.

The salmon restoration cost comes from a 2019 Capstone Project Paper by Robert Rice, a fisheries scientist then studying at the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. That number is for the entire Columbia River Basin and endeavors to quantify both direct and indirect costs incurred by salmon restoration programs by large entities like the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). The research also endeavored to remove gaps in historic federal agency underestimations of these costs as documented by non-government academic scientists.

Infamy and hyperbole

A group known as American Rivers published a list titled “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.” The Snake River is no. 2 on the list for 2022. Why? Solely because of the four Lower Snake River Dams (LSRD). Out of all the dams in the Columbia River Basin (CRB), these four have documentable unsustainable smolt-to-adult ratios (SAR) for salmon. Translated into English, this means that not enough salmon transit these four dams to return to their birth waters to spawn in numbers sufficient to preserve their already-endangered population. Therefore, because not enough salmon survive the passage of the LSRD, they are estimated to be on the short list for extinction.

While for many, the American Rivers endangered list is a call for action, the group’s Snake River webpage could be used as a poster child for environmentalist hyperbole and data cherry-picking. Playing with rhetoric on the salmon issue extends to some who are expected to stay objective, as noted in one paper by an eminence grise of fisheries science, Robert Lackey, professor emeritus from Oregon State, through the choice of certain expressions preloaded with assumptions like healthy ecosystem: “one person’s ‘damaged’ ecosystem is another person’s ‘improved’ ecosystem … a ‘healthy’ ecosystem can be either a malaria-infested swamp or the same land converted to an intensively managed agricultural field. Neither can be labeled as ‘healthy’ except through the lens of … values and preferences.”

American Rivers’ title of “most endangered” approached skepticism, at least to this commentator, since the group used that label for just the single issue of removing the LSRD. It excluded the 25 other dams in the CRB and over 90% of the Snake River upstream of Lewiston. That’s 1,000 miles with many other issues, including the effects of contamination and drought on the major source of irrigation for all of those potatoes and barley, the two crops for which Idaho leads the nation.

The three basic issues of the LSRD

Pruning out all the non-core topics of irrigation, recreation and indirect economic benefits, the LSRD issues can be distilled down to three: 1) the cheap hydropower of four dams, 2) slack water conditions from Pasco to Lewiston for cheap barge transport and 3) the quantifiable reduction in SAR over the LSRD, which has become a well-publicized target for environmental activists engaged in saving the Pacific Northwest salmon runs.

Granted, for a farmer in southeast Washington, irrigation water from the LSRD might appear to be the big issue. Regardless, the reason the dams were built was to create navigable slack water up to Lewiston for barges. One reason the LSRD continue to make sense economically is because they enable inexpensive hydropower and inexpensive barge transportation. The dams were not built for irrigation, recreation, nor flood control. The economic rationale for building the dams was river navigation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) style.

Washington and Idaho newspapers from 1931 until the mid-1950s were full of arguments between two groups: the advocates for slack water navigation to Lewiston and those who argued that the dams would destroy the salmon runs of the Salmon, Clearwater and middle Snake rivers. What has happened since the LSRD were built doesn’t speak well for those who claimed salmon survival could be managed through engineered features like fish ladders and infusions of hatchery fish.

Why the LSRD?

There are 29 federal dams in the Columbia River Basin today. Starting in 1931, every dam built became a new obstacle for salmon returning to spawn. To an outsider not familiar with the debate, the controversy is over just four out of 29 dams. It takes digging to understand the rationale over removing the four LSRD and not the four lower Columbia dams downstream. If saving the salmon runs is the objective, why just four and not all eight?

The effect of all the dams can’t be washed away. According to Rice: “more than 55% of the historically available spawning habitat in the Columbia River Basin is now blocked by dams.” Interestingly, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWC) uses 40% instead, achieved by adding up the river runs in a different way. The NWC is a quasi-agency group created by Congress through the 1980 Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act. Its purpose is to find ways to balance CRB hydropower generation with the conservation of salmon and other species.

Whether the dam blockage is 40% or 55%, either is still a big number and any artificial barrier that makes it more difficult for salmon to survive until spawning is another brick in the wall impeding species survival. All Idaho wild salmon must transit the four LSRD. When we say “wild salmon” in this context, we include the salmonid steelhead species.

When compared to sustainable salmon survival in other CRB rivers, Idaho wild salmon have unsustainable survival rates when compared to the wild salmon that transit the lower Columbia River Dams. The scientific consensus is salmon must have a smolt-to-adult return (SAR) ratio of around 4%, which is what Snake River salmon need to achieve to meet recovery goals.

All CRB salmon, including the Snake River’s wild salmon, go through the four lower Columbia dams whose SAR is roughly 3- 4%. Wild Idaho salmon must transit eight dams — the four on the lower Columbia and the four LSRD. The LSRD have an SAR of roughly 1%, which fish biologists say is below replacement levels for species survival of wild Idaho salmon. In comparison, some other tributary rivers to the lower Columbia have sustainable SAR. For example, the wild salmon spawning on the John Day, which must negotiate three dams upstream of the lower Columbia dams, have an SAR ratio of around 4%.

The documentable unsustainable SAR for multiple species of wild Snake River salmon transiting the LSRD can’t be denied. The numbers are real and the drop in salmon number for the Snake River correlates clearly in time with the installation of the LSRD.

These unsustainable numbers make the LSRD a clear target for improving SAR in a way the mimics the point source/non-point source problem of regulating environmental contamination sources: a polluting factory is a clear target for water quality regulation but fixing the problem of contamination from the “non-point source” of surface water run-off is nowhere as easy.

Like the point-source polluting factory, the LSRD are similar low-hanging fruit. Their removal is an obvious target to improve SAR for the wild Idaho salmon transiting the lower Snake River. As the third major issue for the LSRD, it is not clear if dam removal will really solve the problem of wild salmon survival, which is discussed in more detail below.

Costs and other numbers

The four LSRD were built by the Corps between 1955 and 1975. They have a combined capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW), which can be expanded to a peak of 3,000 peak MW. They are operated and maintained by the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). In terms of electricity in the CRB, the LSRD provide just over one-tenth of the BPA’s current power production, which is among the cheapest and cleanest power in the country.

When the Corps built the four lower Snake River dams, all four and their associated infrastructure projects — like ripping up railroad tracks and roads — had an original price tag in 1961 of $555 million. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, that cost today would be $5.5 billion.

Spinning numbers to make a case that BPA’s LSRD hydropower is more expensive than other sources of electricity, that the LSRD are old and obsolete, that their maintenance is expensive, that the budgeted and anticipated replacement of turbines is expensive, etc., can be seen as engaging in rhetorical gaslighting.

“If you look at existing hydropower,” explained Kurt Miller, the executive director for Northwest River Partners (NRP), an association of hydropower-producing public utilities, “which was built decades ago, the cost of operation is so small. If you have to compare that to replacing them with new wind, solar and batteries, you’re talking at least three to five times the cost to replace … and those (replacements) don’t even get the same abilities because utility-scale batteries are not yet at the stage where they can actually do what the dams do in terms of peaking capacity and storage … I have researched; I know it’s not true.”

Miller didn’t start his career in hydropower. He came to NRP from a different sector of the public utilities industry. He added: “You hear people say that the LSRD lose money. And again, that’s very much not true. Those dams are some of the BPA’s least expensive dams to operate. If you had to replace them with other resources, it would cost literally billions and billions of dollars.”

Miller’s statement is backed up by other research. For example, one robust summary of the costs to replace LSRD power-production alternatives, which compares different groups’ evaluations, is contained in the executive summary of the 2020 inter-agency Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement.

The costs of the power-production alternatives generated by some groups resort to an interesting device which is to add the billions spent on salmon recovery efforts to the low cost of electricity from the LSRD in making their arguments. Regardless of whether the cost of salmon restoration is considered to be the same as the cost of producing kilowatts, if salmon recovery efforts stopped tomorrow, the electricity produced by the LSRD still would remain among the cheapest in the nation.

What price for wild salmon?

The annual salmon restoration cost, $1.25 billion, is the same as the approximate cost of the Ice Harbor Dam and associated infrastructure in 2022 dollars. The United States has invested a huge amount of money to try to save salmon while also reaping the many benefits of damming rivers in the CRB.

The last obstacle in the LSRD versus wild Snake River salmon is salmon survival. University of Washington scientist David Montgomery in his 2003 book “King of Fish” documented that the destruction of West Coast Pacific salmon is just one in a series of worldwide salmon fishery destructions, starting with the northern European salmon collapse caused by overfishing and habitat destruction during northwestern Europe’s industrial revolution starting in the 17th century. This was followed by the destruction of New England’s and Maritime Canada’s Atlantic salmon by the 19th century industrialization of regional fishing fleets and river-power infrastructure during the heyday of the New England mill towns.

If we are honest about wild salmon survival for the Snake River, we must acknowledge that the causes of unsustainable SAR are far bigger than the habitat destruction by the slack water created by the LSRD. The problems are those shared by all the collapsing salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest and include historical and modern industrial fishing and the ongoing destruction and degradation of all salmon habitats, including the decline of Pacific Ocean conditions for salmon from pollution, temperature changes and changing dissolved chemical profiles in coastal and offshore waters. Even if the LSRD are removed, some other additional cause of declining SAR could still doom the wild Snake River Salmon.

Lackey summed up the historical decline of Pacific salmon, which parallels the collapse of salmon in Europe and New England, in a 2009 paper, starting with the destruction by the British of all the beavers they could kill in the 1820s in an attempt to keep those pesky Americans out of what became Oregon and Washington. Beavers create excellent salmon habitats and the loss of those in the 1820s started a decline with an impact that is unknown but likely devastating for Washington and Oregon rivers.

The second obstacle Lackey listed sums up what’s at issue in the LSRD debate: “competing societal priorities which are at least partially mutually exclusive.”

The essence of the debate

The raison-d’être for the LSRD was the creation of that navigable slack water for barges. It is now the culprit in the destruction of salmon habitat and the creation of barriers to salmon. The creation of the navigable Lower Snake River to Lewiston destroyed over 130 miles of running cool river water and replaced it with salmon-inhospitable, warmer, slow-flowing waters. The numbers on SAR and salmon declines before and after the LSRD are impossible to argue away.

This is Lackey’s case of mutually exclusive competing societal priorities. The SAR numbers make it clear that trying to restore wild salmon with the LSRD in place isn’t working for the salmon and it’s costing a lot of money. Both the current, sometimes failing, salmon restoration programs for the LSRD and the estimated transportation and power replacements for the LSRD cost buckets of similar amounts of money: ones to tens of billions of dollars. So, the debate is not about money per se. The scientific consensus is real, solid and two decades old. More studies and government planning documents, arguably, are a waste of resources. The data says trying to work salmon preservation around the conditions created by the LSRD isn’t working. For wild Snake River salmon, this really looks like an either-or decision.

This debate is about what the policy-makers in Congress decide takes priority for us as a society: giving wild salmon in the lower Snake River a fighting chance to live versus proven inexpensive barge transport and cheap electricity provided by the LSRD.