This week, federal agencies again ignored science and public opinion in a management plan for federal dams in the Columbia River Basin. The plan, a final environmental impact statement (EIS), applies to 14 dams and reservoirs that comprise the Columbia River Hydropower System. Research shows that four dams in particular – located on the lower Snake River – negatively impact the recovery of endangered Pacific salmon and southern resident orcas as a result.
Robb Krehbiel, representative for Northwest Programs at Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:
“We’re disappointed with the federal government’s refusal to remove the four lower Snake River dams. Instead of developing a plan that restores salmon, the agencies continue to ignore the best available science.
“Restoring the lower Snake River is the best way to save salmon, southern resident orcas, honor our treaty obligations to tribes and support struggling fishing communities. We need Senators Murray and Cantwell and other leaders to bring stakeholders together so that we ensure a better future for all that share the Columbia Basin.”
Dam management in the Columbia River Basin
• The Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the management of 14 dams and reservoirs that comprise the Columbia River Hydropower System. The agencies’ chosen alternative is to increase the amount of water spilled over dams during the juvenile salmon migration to the ocean in the spring. While this action is anticipated to marginally increase salmon runs, the advantages for salmon would be modest compared to the dam breaching alternative.
• In 2016, the federal agencies were ordered by a federal court to produce an environmental impact statement updating the management plan.
• The chosen management method, which did not include dam breaching, was announced in a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), released earlier this year, by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation, who are responsible for managing the federal dams, including four dams in the lower Snake River.
• This requirement is the result of decades-long litigation regarding the effect these federal dams have on salmon. Several organizations, including Native American tribes, environmental groups and fishing organizations, have repeatedly challenged the lack of an adequate salmon recovery program.
Dam impact on endangered species
• Along with the final EIS, the federal government released a biological opinion (BiOp) from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), assessing the potential impacts the chosen dam management method would have on endangered species recovery.
• Chinook salmon and southern resident orcas, two species affected by these federal dams, are both listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. This designation requires any federal action that might affect these species to undergo agency review. NMFS is the federal agency responsible for managing salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin.
• In past BiOps, NOAA concluded that retaining the lower Snake River dams will not jeopardize salmon survival, a claim contested by environmentalists, the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon. The BiOp released today repeats this mistaken claim, concluding the dams pose “no jeopardy” to either salmon or orcas.
Endangered salmon and orcas
• One of the leading causes of the decrease in chinook salmon are the existence of hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin, which includes four dams on the lower Snake River. These dams directly affect salmon runs by providing physical barriers to both adult salmon returning to the river to spawn and juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.
• Independent science has shown that these dams threaten the survival of adult salmon by raising the water temperature to lethal levels, a threat exacerbated by the effects of climate change in the region. Government and independent models have shown that removing the four lower Snake River dams can cool the Snake and Columbia Rivers to safe levels for salmon.
• Southern resident orcas are critically endangered, with only 72 left in the wild. These orcas, which live off the west coast, are facing extinction because their primary food source, chinook salmon, have declined across the Northwest.
• While these once-epic salmon runs are a shadow of what they once were, salmon scientists have suggested that removing the four dams on the lower Snake River could recover these threatened salmon runs, resulting in approximately 1 million adult chinook salmon returning to the mouth of the Columbia River every year.
• This would provide orcas with a substantial and critical source of food in their winter habitat range (the west coast of the U.S.). Leading orca scientists have said that orca recovery may be impossible if these dams are not removed.