Letters from the West

Will Federal agencies’ review of Columbia, Snake dams lead to removal?

Watch salmon move through Bonneville Dam

The Bonneville Dam near Portland is the last blockage of the Columbia River before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Every year, salmon make their way through the dam's fish ladders en route to Idaho, where they spawn.
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The Bonneville Dam near Portland is the last blockage of the Columbia River before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. Every year, salmon make their way through the dam's fish ladders en route to Idaho, where they spawn.

Three federal agencies that operate and market power from 14 dams in the Columbia Basin announced they are going to do an environmental review on future operations of the structures that inspired Woody Guthrie to write and sing "Roll on Columbia."

The Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation will present a range of alternatives that will include removing or breaching some of them. They aren't saying that now but they simply could not do an environmental impact statement without such alternatives and pass legal muster.

The process is expected to take five years including a biological consultation as required under the federal Endangered Species Act for 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened and endangered. That will be done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries staff after the environmental impact statement is done.

They call the first step of the process scoping because the public can comment on all of the issues it believes need to be considered. Since the fisheries science community has said removing the four lower Snake dams is the best way to recover the salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Snake watershed, hard to see that alternative left out.

Oregon will certainly want the aggressive non-breach proposal with full spill at all dams considered. Is taking out John Day Dam, the single most harmful dam to salmon below Grand Coulee, more feasible now than it was when studied in the 1990s? Then there is cultural issues. Will the Columbia River tribes want removal of the Dalles so that their sacred fishing grounds, Celilo Falls rises again in the Columbia Gorge?

Over this review the federal agencies will evaluate the potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts on flood risk management, irrigation, power generation, navigation, fish and wildlife, cultural resources and recreation. The dams include the four dams on the lower Snake, the five dams on the Columbia, Hungry Horse in Montana and two other dams in the Columbia watershed.

The dams not only provide tens of thousands of megawatts of electricity that can be turned on immediately, they also make the Columbia River a major shipping corridor with$20 billion of cargo and 10 percent of all U.S. wheat exports moving through the dams. Dam supporters also say taking out dams will increase the carbon that contributes to climate change.

This is not just a historic opportunity to save Idaho’s wild salmon but also a chance to restore an entire river ecosystem. It would be one of the largest fishery restoration projects in human history and is an enormous economic opportunity for the state.

Zack Waterman, Idaho Sierra Club director

The impact to the resources will be addressed in light of anticipated climate change impacts such as warmer water, diminished snowpack and lower flows.

In 2015, warm river temperatures killed off most of the run of returning sockeye salmon. This year This year 567 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley, just below the 10-year average of 664 fish.

But keep in mind as late as 2007, only four sockeye returned.

The Upper Snake dams in Idaho, managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, including the three on the Boise River, are not included in the review.

Scoping ends Jan. 17, 2017, but the agencies will likely extend the scoping period because some state or tribe will request it. Anyone who is interested to help the agencies identify issues and concerns that could be analyzed can participate.

These dams put food on our tables, provide clean energy for homes and businesses, and help keep our skies clean, while ensuring safe passage for salmon.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners a pro-dam group.

The agencies will host public scoping meetings at 15 Northwest communities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana including Boise Nov. 29.

Additionally, two webinars will be held Dec. 13, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 3 to 4:30 p.m. PST. Information and links to the webinars will be provided on the project website.

For more information about the Columbia River System Operations EIS, please visit http://crso.info./. Information is also available by calling 800-290-5033.

Emailed comments should be sent to comment@crso.info.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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