Fisherman on the Lower Snake River catches salmon. (AP photo)
( – The Obama administration has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct studies on the possibility of removing four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River in Washington state in order to “protect” 13 species of salmon on the federal endangered species list.
The studies were part of a new “Adaptive Management Implementation Plan” created by a coalition of nine government agencies (which calls itself “the Federal Caucus”) that manages the salmon population in the Columbia River basin. The plan aims at trying to reverse a decline in the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest.
The plan (or “biological opinion”), which was submitted to a federal court judge in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 15, is a revised version of a plan originally developed by the Bush administration. It explicitly raises the possibility of breaching the four hydropower dams on the Snake River in order to “save” salmon populations. The Bush-era plan did not recommend destroying dams.
In May, U.S. District Judge James Redden had directed the agencies to tear up their previous plan and submit another. Redden has been critical of past plans, dating back as far as the Clinton administration, because they did not consider the possibility of removing the dams.
Wild salmon swim from the ocean up the Columbia River and its tributaries in order to spawn, but are blocked from reaching those grounds by the series of dams, according to a lawsuit that was filed by the National Wildlife Federation, the Nez Perce Indian tribe and the state of Oregon against the Federal Columbia River Power System and the Bonneville Power Administration.

The envronmentalists and the state have been trying to force the government-run agencies to allow more water to “spill” over the dams to protect the salmon runs.
The Army Corps of Engineers “study plan” for blowing up dams on the Lower Snake River must be conducted by March 2010. According to Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Nola Leyde, it will lay out the scope of the project, a proposed schedule and a budget to complete subsequent technical studies.
“The study basically lays a roadmap for (what it will take) if breaching was a trigger that was hit,” Leyde said. “It doesn’t actually look at how you would do it or what you would do. What it does is it looks at how, it’s more of a process, how you would get to that process, because there are decisions that would need to be made by Congress -- and Congress would have to authorize.
“You’d be looking at everything from environmental impacts to impacts on species in the area, economic impacts, water quality, sediment,” she added.
Leyde noted that the Corps had previously examined dam-breaching in a 2002 study titled “Improving Salmon Passage," which found that dam removal was unnecessary.
“The bottom line on it was that NOAA Fisheries said it wasn’t necessary to breach the dams to recover the (salmon) stock,” she said.
In addition, she said, the previous study had concluded that there were “certainties in the problems that it could cause for fish.’
NOAA has also been ordered to study dam removal.
“By December 2012,” the plan says, “NOAA Fisheries, in coordination with the Action Agencies will develop a life-cycle model . . . for evaluation of the short-term, transitional and long-term biological effects of dam-breaching.”
Asked what such a study would entail, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brain Gorman told simply, “I have no idea.”
He added: “I’m under the impression that, first, the Corps of Engineers would do sort of a broad paper on what a study would look like.”
Gorman noted that an in-depth study of dam breaching would only be conducted if there is a “compelling reason to do it” – that is, no other option halts the decline in salmon population.
Opponents of dam-breaching want it left off the table entirely, while proponents of dam removal say that blowing up the dams should be more than a “contingency of last resort.”
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) opposes dam removal.
“I’m concerned that, bottom line, this administration decided to put dams on the table,” she told, “and there have been some extreme environmental organizations that have been advocating for years that these dams be removed, and now they have an opening to continue to advocate for the dam removal.”
Terry Flores, executive director of the anti-breaching group Northwest RiverPartners, also disapproves of the government’s decision.
“We’re disappointed that this administration has put it back on the table, even for discussion,” she told
“Dam breaching, by just keeping it on the table, even as a contingency, fires up folks whose only agenda is dam removal, and it really distracts the whole region from being able to, you know, put a hundred percent of its effort into implementing this plan,” Flores told
Michael Garrity, Washington state conservation director for the pro-dam-busting group American Rivers, disagreed. He doesn’t think the new plan goes far enough.
“We think removing the four lower Snake River dams (is) the most elegant solution to getting big numbers of fish back to the Columbia basin,” Garrity told
When asked about the effects of dam removal on the electricity supply, Garrity said: “It’s replaceable. It’s actually only about 3 or 4 percent of the system’s generation, and . . . the bulk of the energy that those four dams produce tends to come at times of year when there is surplus (energy) -- it’s sold at not real high prices to outside of the region, because the region doesn’t tend to need it when that electricity is generated.”
“It’s disappointing to see the Obama administration defending a plan with such weak standards,” Garrity said.
Congresswoman McMorris-Rodgers disputed the idea the energy provided by the dams was not needed or could be easily replaced.
“The four lower Snake River dams produce five percent of the hydropower in Washington state,” she claimed, “and if we breached these dams, it would take three nuclear plants, or six coal fired plants, or fourteen gas fired plants to provide the equal capacity.”
She also painted a brighter picture, saying that efforts already underway to improve conditions for salmon were actually working.
“We’ve seen where salmon and dams can coexist,” she said. “The salmon runs on both the Snake River and the Columbia River are up.”