I am writing you today to request that you use whatever legal mechanism available to you to remove or breach the four lower Snake River dams. I am not alone in seeking the removal of Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams from the lower Snake River because those actions are the best way to restore wild salmon and steelhead runs that have been greatly endangered in the Snake River Basin primarily by those dams. You should be receiving a video soon showing you the hundreds of people, myself included, who participated in a flotilla to Free the Snake Saturday. We did so because we seek the restoration of our wild fish runs that we all hold in trust for future generations. We borrow our world and all that is in it from our children and these dams have created a situation where we will not be able to pay the mortgage.
Free the Snake was a wonderful event and I am confident that everyone had a great time and would do it again if they had to. However, I am more confident that every single person who participated in that event, and those who wished they had, would be more than happy for it to be a one-time only event. For that to happen, we need four dams removed so that our wild salmon and steelhead runs can be given the best shot at recovery.
The beauty of my request is that as time passes this question really becomes a question of saving wild fish versus saving some concrete and rebar. The dams are incredibly expensive to operate and they have many future expenses coming up. I will get into all of that later. These dams produce less than 3 percent of the power in the Pacific Northwest and this is a region that enjoys at 14 percent surplus. The issue of transportation on the lower Snake is not an argument for keeping these dams in place. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers actually defines the lower Snake River as a waterway of "negligible use."
I grew up in western Kentucky and I am familiar with barge traffic, having been within 25 miles of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and Kentucky Lake (part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway) and Lake Barkley. Believe me when I say to you that your U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is correct in labeling the lower Snake River as a waterway of "negligible use." I've seen more activity at one point along the Mississippi or Ohio rivers in one day than I see on the lower Snake throughout an entire summer. And that includes the barges the Corps fills with salmon smolts. When you think about that, isn't there a part of you that innately understands there is nothing right about filling barges with fish to transport them to the ocean?
Less than 20 farms use the reservoirs for irrigation and removing the dams simply means a little more pipe has to be used to continue to irrigate. In other words, it is not an argument for keeping these dams.
This weekend, in response to the Free the Snake event, Lt. Col. Tim Vail of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave an argument for the dams that I am going to quote here and then refute point by point.
"The four lower Snake River dams provide a great return on investment. These dams cost $62 million per year to operate, an investment that generates more than $200 million per year of clean, renewable electricity, enough to power 675,000 residences," Lt. Col. Vail said. "
The truth as myself and salmon advocates see it.
The lower Snake River dams operate at only 31 percent of nameplate capacity and produce less than 3 percent of the Pacific Northwest's power supply. Wind energy in the Pacific Northwest produced more than three times as much energy as those dams did in 2013. We have a power surplus in this region with or without those dams. All of the turbines have reached the point where they have to be rehabbed. If Lt. Col. Vail is correct in saying the dams only cost $62 million per year to operate, and I have spent a great deal of my life where Corps statements have proven to be untrue and underestimated, he is not sharing the incredible expenses the operations of these dams are about to incur. The Corps estimated the cost of rehabbing those turbines at $776 million. You and I both know that the only cost those turbines won't fall on is anything south of $776 million.
The Corps has also embarked upon a sediment management plan that requires dredging in the Lower Granite Reservoir through the year 2074. The Corps says it will cost $6.7 million a year. Salmon advocates believe the number is higher.
The Corps spent $600 million to fix the dams for fish passage, but wild salmon and steelhead runs are no better off today than they were when they were listed as endangered or threatened under the endangered species act.
The Corps also understated the true cost of keeping those dams in 2002 by $140.7 million annually.
The Bonneville Power Administration has literally spent billions of ratepayer dollars ($14-$16 billion from 1979-present and most of that recently) on wild fish mitigation that are not included in Lt. Col. Vail's $62 million annual figure. In fact, any honest analysis of the true cost of these dams must begin with all of the participating agencies' budgets included in one economic report, rather than allowing one agency chief to give a portion of the picture rather than the whole picture.
"This investment also provides a marine transportation corridor that helps move 3.5 million tons of cargo, worth $1.5 billion a year, to regional markets, which improves the region's economic competitiveness. And this investment provides recreation facilities that host 2.8 million visitors per year," Lt. Col. Vail said.
The truth as I and my fellow salmon advocates see it.
I've spent enough time on the lower Snake and in the free flowing waters just above it in Hells Canyon to know that removing the dams and creating a longer, free flowing section of the Snake River will increase the number of visitors to the lower Snake River section. Yes, the nature of the free flowing water will change how it is used, but it will also increase the number of visitors to that section of river. There is no comparison to the number of river users above those reservoirs, which are high, to the users on those reservoirs, which are often times empty.
But more importantly, let's discuss shipping on the lower Snake River. The Corps identifies it as a waterbody of negligible use and that is the accurate statement. Linwood Laughy has done some very great work in regards to shipping on the Lower Snake River and his numbers do not paint a picture for keeping the dams. Freight transport has declined 69 percent since the year 2000 on the lower Snake River. Clearwater Paper, located across the Clearwater River and two miles upstream from the Port of Lewiston ships 99.5 percent of its total production by truck or rail. Container-on-Barge shipping declined by 82 percent since 2000 in the lower Snake River. All container-on-barge shipping was suspended this past spring on the lower Snake River.
The most exciting news from the Port of Lewiston's perspective as it pertains to its river mode of transport was a deal it struck with American Alloy of Spokane in the past couple of weeks where the port will make $650 per month for seven months leasing an acre of land to the Spokane company. The company plans to take some steel structures it makes in Spokane, ship them by road to Lewiston where they will be assembled into bigger parts to be barged to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. The completed structures will be used for decommissioning submarines. I don't know about you, Mr. President, but it seems fairly desperate to sign 7-month leases under just about any circumstance and incredibly cheap at $650 per month. This sort of deal only truly pencils out when you ignore the taxpayer subsidy that makes it possible. The taxpayer subsidy for each barge leaving Lewiston for the aforementioned dredging plan alone was approaching $19,000 per barge, which on the lower Snake River typically it is just one barge going down on the odd occasion.
As an added bonus to keeping the dams, Lewiston has an increased flood risk. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but as wildfires rage on each summer in Idaho, the amount of sediment load in the rivers that eventually gets trapped behind Lower Granite Dam presents a ever-increasing flood risk for Lewiston, Idaho. With the challenges of climate change, including increased wildfire severity and activity, this sediment load and increasing flood risk is only going to increase. Unless we remove these dams and allow the river to take care of itself as it did for eons.
Lt. Col. Vail also said this,
"As for our fish recovery efforts, the lower Snake River dams are equipped with the most advanced fish passage systems in the world and our fish program is one of the largest fish conservation efforts in the Nation. Fish passage systems like spillway weirs are in place on all our Snake River dams. Survival rates for juvenile fish through spillway weirs range from 95-100%. The investments in fish recovery are paying dividends. Last year brought some of the highest Fall Chinook, Coho and Sockeye salmon returns to the Lower Snake River since Snake River dam construction began in 1962. Corps scientists and engineers team with our many partners to prove dams and fish can co-exist.
This year hot weather and drought conditions presented challenges to fish passage and survival. However, working with numerous regional partners to maximize fish survival we still observed the 3rd highest fall Chinook salmon returns over Lower Granite Dam and the 10th highest Snake River Sockeye salmon return since the dam was constructed. Conditions were unfavorable throughout the Pacific Northwest, but in the Lower Snake River fish managers were able to improve conditions by modifying spill patterns and by releasing cool water from Dworshak Reservoir to moderate temperatures affecting fish in the lower Snake River."
The truth as I and my fellow salmon advocates see it.
Mr. President, the truth about how many salmon smolts that die in those dams is far greater than Lt. Col. Vail's carefully cherry-picked talking point. About 50 percent of all Snake River smolts die each spring passing through the hydrosystem that includes the four lower Snake River dams and the four downstream dams on the Columbia River. For our wild runs of fish to recover they need to have a smolt-to-adult return rate (SAR) between 2-6 percent for eight consecutive years. Mr. President, that kind of SAR does exist downstream of these four lower Snake River dams for many populations of wild salmon and steelhead. It used to be the case before the dams were constructed for the endangered and threatened wild salmon and steelhead of the Snake River Basin. To avoid extinction of Snake River wild salmon and steelhead requires a SAR of 1 percent. Over the past 18 years, the average SAR for wild salmon is 0.59 percent and has never exceeded 0.8 percent. NOAA refutes the Corps claims that the dam improvements have been beneficial to fish when it said, "Chinook survival through the hydropower system has remained relatively stable since 1999 with the exception of lower estimates in 2001 and 2004." I realize you are a very intelligent man, Mr. President, but I always like to point out the nuance of government language when I see it. Stable here is meant to assuage the public by using a word that actually means in this instance no improvement, but to the casual observer, means there is no alarm because we are treading water. This year we had a low snow pack and low flows and hot water throughout the basin and we lost 80-90 percent of the Columbia/Snake sockeye run. With climate change, this is only going to continue to happen. I ask you, Mr. President, do you really believe the Corps of Engineers is equipped and capable of mitigating the effects of climate change on this altered riverine landscape? Wouldn't a free-flowing river be a better choice, monetarily, ecologically speaking?
The Corps is one of the "Action Agencies," I believe it is telling that in defense of these dams, the Corps' Walla Walla District commander doesn't even mention smolt to adult return rates, the very indicator that his and the other action agencies along with NOAA are tasked to achieve a 2-6 percent rate for eight consecutive years, which would constitute recovery.
We attempt to mitigate the poor SARs created by the construction of these dams by killing other species that might enjoy dining on salmon smolts. The Corps, in one of the greatest follies of modern times, augmented East Sand Island with dredge materials in the Columbia River estuary. They started augmenting that spit of sand in the mid 1980s and they created some really great habitat for various birds like Caspian terns, cormorants, gulls, and pelicans to name a few. These colonies of birds grew quickly, in fact, the Corps moved them one year to another island, but decided against it and soon the bird colonies were back at East Sand Island where the habitat was right (built by the Corps of Engineers) and a readily available food supply existed in the Columbia River estuary. Those birds ate all kinds of small fish in the estuary. They also ate wild and hatchery smolts and we started studying the effects of harassing the birds and then we decided that killing them was necessary. We decided this even though U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologists said that the smolts these birds were eating would be eaten by some other predator anyway. These birds are eating an estimated 14 percent of the smolts, so now the Corps is shooting them with shotguns and oiling the eggs in their nests. I believe the latest count is 5,089 eggs oiled and 1,707 dead double-crested cormorants. We also kill and harass sea lions at the Bonneville Dam Fish Ladder for eating adult salmon and we have a bounty program in place to kill native northern pikeminnow because they eat salmon and steelhead smolts throughout the Columbia/Snake basins.
If we were consistent with our approach, we would also decide to kill off southern resident Orcas. Except they, too, are on the Endangered Species List, having only 81 alive today. The primary reason for their decline is a lack of available food due to the severe decline in Columbia/Snake river chinook salmon, their principle food source.
I have so much more I could share with you, but I want to close this out relatively soon, so I will conclude my argument. I started this blog a few short weeks before my daughter was born in November of 2011. As I have mentioned, we borrow this world from our children, we do not hand it down to them. Increasingly, our actions are creating a situation where we can no longer afford the mortgage we are paying to our future generations. Removing the four lower Snake River dams represents a very rare opportunity, to lower that mortgage payment and to return to our children the world they are owed.
I will ask you, as I always ask my readers (about 12,000) do you want to be the generation that restored the wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin or the generation that watched them pass into history? You do realize this is a choice we can make? We can set about the framework for a world where the abundance of wild salmon and wild steelhead in the Snake River Basin challenges our notions to revere them. We simply must choose to do so, our children and our children's children are owed the very best world possible. We must stem the tide and heal the wounds inflicted upon our natural world and removing these four dams is something we can do that will heal an incredible wound we have inflicted upon our children's world. Let us agree this day to improve the outlook of not only wild salmon and steelhead and orcas, but also of mankind as we head into an uncertain future. I ask this not because our future is anymore challenging than any other generation's but because all generations face uncertain futures and we should prepare for our future as we see fit, as others did before us. Allowing the lower Snake River to flow free again is the best way that we can restore these rivers and these wild fish runs and 85 percent of the fisheries biologists in the Pacific Northwest agree with me, Mr. President. You and I know, science is a good thing to have on your side as you make decisions. Removing these dams represents the best economic, ecological and moral decision when you factor in all of the data. Mr. Obama, tear down these walls.
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