(The Center Square) — Decades after Chinook salmon were added to the Endangered Species Act in 1999, debate continues over whether the Pacific Northwest's share of hydroelectric dams are to blame.
Chinook salmon migrate from the freshwater lakes and rivers where they are born before migrating to salty ocean waters and returning to freshwater to complete their life cycle.
Thirteen Chinook salmon runs are listed as federally threatened or endangered and four of those runs return to the Snake River.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ruled that the four controversial dams on Washington state's side of the Snake River will be left standing, but more water must be spilled over the dams to help the fish migrate faster to and from ocean waters.
U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Jaime Herrera Beutler who serve the region said in a joint statement that the dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers are "far too precious for our region to go without.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown supports breaching the earthen portion of the dams.
A July report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) reiterated its findings from February that breaching the dams would destabilize the power grid and more than double the risk of regional power outages.
The 100-ft-tall, federally operated dams make up a huge hydroelectric power system spanning Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana. Their annual operating costs total $75 million and produce up to $500 million in electricity, the Corps reported.
The electric output of all 14 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers amounts to roughly 40 percent of the region’s energy grid powering almost 5 million homes, the Corps reported.
The dams also support irrigation and flood control for thousands of acres of farmland worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Corps report estimated that breaching the dams could cost wheat farmers up to 33 percent more in transportation costs from $0.07 per bushel to $0.24 per bushel,
A Washington state work group found that 15 percent of BPA’s operating budget goes to fish screens, ladders, hatcheries, and bypass facilities to preserve fish populations.
Forecasts from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates around 81,700 spring Chinook will reach the Columbia this year, up 12 percent from 73,100 last year. That's still 43 percent lower than the state's 10-year average of more than 116,000.
“There is a cycle that fluctuates based on ocean conditions, among other reasons,” said Todd Myers, a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center. “Last year was a very bad year. But, it was the bottom of the cycle, much like the mid-2000s. Now it's rebounding.”
Last year, 38 Pacific Northwest scientists signed a joint letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, calling for the removal of the four dams, warning that the declining salmon population are starving local orcas.
Salmon have long been a source of food, trade, and culture for indigenous Pacific Northwest peoples who are entitled to 50 percent of harvestable salmon under treaty in Washington.
Shannon F. Wheeler, chair of the Nez Perce Tribe of the Columbia River Plateau, has described federal salmon protections as "unacceptable" and removing the dams as "urgent and overdue."
Supporters for breaching the dams point to the BPA's staggering $15 billion in debt and decades-old equipment on top of its costly unscheduled lock closures.
Lock closures on the Snake River in 2010 and 2016 forced farmers to ship their grain by rail, increasing costs by 40 percent, the Corps reported.
According to a 2016 BPA report, much of its annual revenue—$3.7 billion in 2018—came from selling power in California and other states. That income has dropped from $521.8 million in 2011 to $282 million in 2018 as the energy market sees increased competition from wind and solar energy.
According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife, wild spring and summer adult chinook have seen a 10-year average of 16,900 at the Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam. This year’s projected total is 30,177, well below the state’s recovery goal of 127,000 per year.
The Corps has come under frequent fire for failing to meet deadlines to implement court-ordered fish passage protections.
Oregon’s Willamette River Basin is home to 13 dams built after Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938 and acts as a refuge for threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead.
U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez ruled on Monday that the Corps is behind deadline to complete court-mandated fish restoration as required under a 2008 decision.
The dams block roughly 70 percent of local Chinook salmon habitat, Hernandez wrote, exceeding the 65 percent mortality rate for juvenile Chinook at Detroit Lake.
Hernandez determined that court-ordered measures, "were never carried out, some were delayed, some have not yet occurred, and some will not occur in time to meet future deadlines."
The Corps argued in response that the ESA listing of the Chinook and steelhead had not been switched to “endangered” from “threatened” since 2018.
The Corps exceeded the 2009 deadline for finishing a water temperature control at Detroit Lake and a 2014 deadline for building fish passages for Cougar Dam. Fish passage projects at Lookout Point and Detroit Lake are due by the end of 2021 and 2023, respectively.
Under Hernandez’s ruling, the Corps must produce a plan on how dams can ensure the threatened Chinook and steelhead can survive before the Corps can make permanent changes required under the court’s orders.