This thoughtful guest opinion by Roger Gray, Jeff Nelson and Matt Michel, supported by six other General Managers of locally-owned utilities near Eugene, ran in the Register Guard on October 28, 2015. It responds to an Associated Press article on Snake River dam removal that ran in several Northwest newspapers earlier this month.
Hydropower and Salmon Successfully Co-exist
As noted in the recent Register-Guard article “Critics of Snake River dams say it’s time to remove them,” the idea of breaching dams to save salmon is not new. Local consumer-owned utilities care deeply about the environment but respectfully disagree with proponents of dam removal. Here’s why:
Utilities are tasked with providing reliable, low-cost and environmentally responsible electric energy to our customers. The Snake River dams are critically important to achieving those goals. Energy purchased by utilities from the Bonneville Power Administration is 95 percent carbon free, with 75 percent coming from hydropower — including the Snake River hydro projects.
They help keep our lights on, significantly reduce our carbon footprint, power our businesses and economy, support the Northwest’s power grid in energy emergencies, and enable farmers to put food on our tables and the tables of others around the world.
Other sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar, because they are not always available, simply cannot replace the hydropower generated by the Snake River dams. In fact, it’s hydropower that makes wind and solar work in the Northwest, by backing them up when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
The four lower Snake River dams are equipped with fish ladders to ensure adults can reach prime spawning habitat. Each has state-of-the-art technologies to ensure young salmon travel safely downstream. Survival levels for young salmon at these dams are astounding, with 97 percent on average safely traversing each dam. This is akin to levels seen in river systems with no dams, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
According to an independent public opinion poll conducted last February by Portland-based DHM Research and commissioned by Northwest RiverPartners, fully 70 percent of Northwest residents recognize the value of the Snake River dams and support them; only 10 percent said they should be removed. In the Eugene area, 68 percent support the dams, with only 7 percent believing they should be removed. In fact, support for the dams overall increased 10 percent this year.
Utilities and the customers we represent understand that salmon and dams are important to our region. In the DHM poll, 77 percent of Northwest residents said it is critical for dams and salmon to co-exist; in Eugene, 85 percent agree with this statement.
The good news is, salmon and dams are co-existing. Overall salmon abundance is way up since 2000, with a record-setting return of 2.5 million adults in 2014, the most since Bonneville Dam was built in 1938.
This year, while the sockeye salmon have struggled with low river flows and high temperatures thanks to an exceptionally dry spring and summer, we’re seeing tremendous returns for other endangered fish species. In fact, the fall chinook are on track to set another return record.
With up to 25 percent of BPA’s power costs going toward fish and wildlife mitigation, including habitat restoration and improved dam operations to aid salmon, our customers have expressed pride — and have invested their hard earned dollars — in environmental stewardship.
It is unlikely that removal of the dams would solve the problem presented by dam-removal proponents. Dam removal would affect BPA investments in fish and wildlife. It also would increase our carbon footprint, adding up to 4.5 million tons of carbon annually, because the loss of hydropower likely would be replaced by electricity generated from natural gas, coal or other sources that produce carbon dioxide, according to an analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Responsible environmental stewardship points to keeping the dams in place.
We want to protect the fish while also preserving our hydropower — an unmatched source of reliable, renewable energy that fuels our region’s economy, provides a platform for significant investment in environmental habitat, and keeps our skies clean.
Roger Gray, Jeff Nelson and Matt Michel are general managers of the Eugene Water & Electric Board, the Springfield Utility Board and the Lane Electric Cooperative, respectively. This statement was also signed by the general managers of the Emerald People’s Utility District, Blachly-Lane Electric Co-Op, Central Lincoln PUD, Douglas Electric Co-Op, Consumers Power Inc. and the Coos-Curry Electric Co-Op.
Terry Flores is Executive Director of Northwest River Partners, an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and large and small businesses that relies on and promotes the economic and environmental benefits of the Columbia and Snake Rivers as well as fish policies and programs based on sound science.