Report: cost to replace dams between $10.3B and $27.2B

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Jun. 10—A draft report commissioned by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray says replacing services of the four lower Snake River dams will cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion over the next 50 years.

The two powerful Democrats commissioned the study last fall and will use it to solidify their position on Snake River salmon recovery and whether they believe breaching the dams is both necessary and worth the costs.

"We each remain firmly committed to saving our salmon," they said in a joint statement issued with the 118-page report that was released Thursday. "We also know that the dams provide significant benefits to our region's economy and communities. In the coming weeks, we will carefully review and consider public input, tribal consultation, and other engagement from stakeholders before making any recommendations."

How best to recover wild runs of spring chinook, sockeye salmon, steelhead and fall chinook has been hotly debated for decades. Many fisheries scientists, the Nez Perce Tribe, the state of Oregon, and fishing and conservation organizations believe the dams must be breached if wild salmon and steelhead populations are to be recovered. But many people believe the move is not needed and would devastate industries that depend on slackwater.

Among the impacts would be the loss of tug-and-barge shipping of wheat between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities, elimination of the growing tour boat industry on the river, and the production of nearly 1,000 average annual megawatts of electricity generated at the dams.

Keeping the dams in place risks the extinction of the fish that are central to religion, economy and way of life to the Nez Perce and other tribes; cherished by sport anglers who spend freely to pursue them; and deliver marine-derived nutrients to inland streams.

Tribal leaders called for the Biden administration and Congress to act quickly following the release of the Inslee-Murray report.

"The subsidized services provided by the four dams that have turned the Snake (River) into a lake can be replaced and addressed, and in doing so we will be charting a smarter, better future for the Northwest and the Nation," said Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

Last year, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, a conservative Republican, shocked the region by announcing his support for breaching with the release of a $33.5 billion concept that would pay for dam removal and mitigate affected industries and communities. Democrats from the Pacific Northwest were initially cool toward the idea, but the Nez Perce and other tribes worked to build support. Last fall, Inslee and Murray said they would embark on their own process to determine how best to proceed.

Simpson didn't comment on the Inslee-Murray plan but a coalition of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Russ Fulcher, of Idaho, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, of Washington, introduced legislation aimed at protecting the dams.

"The science is crystal clear: breaching the Four Lower Snake River Dams would be harmful to our communities, our environment, and our economy," Newhouse said. "Amidst a national energy and supply chain crisis, it is unconscionable that dam-breaching advocates — including Governor Inslee and Senator Murray — repeatedly attempt to force a predetermined, unscientific conclusion that will put our communities who are already struggling at risk."

The dams, constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, are a major source of mortality for juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead that have been protected by the Endangered Species Act for three decades. But they also produce about 1,000 average megawatts of electricity each year, allow for the transportation of wheat and other products, provide irrigation water for farmland near Ice Harbor Dam and support flat-water recreation.

A contractor hired by the two politicians compiled existing studies looking at the costs and options to replace services provided by the dams. The report estimates replacing river-borne transportation would cost $542 million to $4.5 billion and require upgrading rail and road infrastructure. and increasing price support for farmers. Using a combination of the two modes would lead to an increase of carbon emissions, according to the report.

Replacing the hydropower produced at the four dams would cost $8.3 billion to $18.6 billion and the report indicates a portfolio of new sources of generation would need to be in place and proven before breaching. The portfolio would likely include things like wind and solar plants, battery storage, conservation and demand response — systematically reducing the use of power when supply is strained.

The overall estimate of $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion to replace services that would be lost to breaching comes in under Simpson's estimated $33.5 billion concept but does not appear to include many of the wide-reaching mitigation programs suggested by the congressman.

According to the report, the federal government has spent $24 billion on fish and wildlife programs associated with the dams since 1980. That includes court ordered spill of water at the dams and restoration of inland spawning streams and the Columbia River estuary. Spill is meant to help juvenile salmon and steelhead during their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

Critics said the report is flawed and generally underestimates costs or fails to consider important attributes of the dams. Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, said the report authors fundamentally misunderstand the region's energy market and that breaching the dams makes it more difficult to eliminate carbon heavy coal and natural gas plants.

"We explained to them the nature of how the energy landscape is changing and why losing the dams inevitably results in a much larger CO2 footprint," he said. "It is nowhere to be found in the study and I think it's a shocking omission."

Heather Stebbings, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, also said the report has holes and fails to understand the realities of transportation on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

"It raises more questions than it answers and does not provide a solid foundation upon which a decision as substantial as this one could be made," she said.

Supporters said the report shows replacing the services provided by the dams is possible.

"There is nothing that requires us to remain reliant on concrete and rebar that was put in the middle of our rivers 50 years ago. We don't have to be beholden to the past," said Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited. "We can build a better future for salmon and steelhead and the people of the Northwest as well. Simpson, Inslee and Murray — they are helping to pave a path forward. It's exciting."

Brian Brooks, of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said the dams benefit some people at the expense of others, including small riverside communities along the Clearwater and Salmon rivers that depend on fishing to fuel their economies.

"There are certain people who benefit from the existence of the dams but those benefits are largely derived from the rest of us who pay for it and we are paying for it in lost fish."

Inslee and Murray are accepting public comments on the draft report through July 11. The draft and comment submissions are both available at lsrdoptions.org.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.