Corps Opposes Breaching Snake River Dams

WALLA WALLA, Washington, February 21, 2002 (ENS) - As expected, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers final report on improving salmon passage through the lower Snake River dams recommends against dam breaching. Conservation groups warn that leaving the dams intact could lead to the extinction of the Snake River's salmon and steelhead runs.


Snake River salmon, like this chinook salmon, face danger each time they pass the four dams on the lower Snake River (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
The Corps' final Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report/Environmental Impact Statement calls for spending almost $400 million over the next 10 years on programs aimed at making the dams less lethal to migrating salmon and steelhead.

The study, begun in 1995, examined ways of improving salmon passage through the four lower Snake River dams and reservoirs - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. The dams and locks cost $36.5 million dollars to maintain each year, a sum which includes the maintenance of fish facilities and a transportation program to carry fish around the dams.

Four alternatives were identified and explored in the study - maintaining existing conditions, maximizing transport of juvenile salmon around the dams, major systems improvements to the dams, and dam breaching. The Corps chose the third option, which will keep the dams intact but require major changes to help protect migrating fish.

"Adapting the dams with various operational and structural configuration changes for improving fish passage better describes this alternative than simply calling it major system improvements," said Lonnie Mettler, Walla Walla District project manager for the feasibility study. "The survival of both juvenile and adult salmon passing through the lower Snake River hydrosystem is already high for a majority of flow years and salmon stocks."


The Lower Granite Dam, one of four blocking migrating salmon on the Snake River. (Photo by Doug Thiele. Four photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Operational changes proposed include improving the coordination and implementation of spill, increasing in stream flows, and juvenile fish transportation. Structural changes include spillway improvements, upgraded adult fish passage systems, upgraded facilities for juvenile fish and additional fish transportation barges.

Proposed long term improvements include turbine upgrades, removable spillway weirs and surface bypass structures. The estimated cost of implementing the proposed structural improvements and changes in operations is $390 million dollars over a period of 10 years.

Critics note that the federal government's own scientists have determined that the investment will do little to help salmon.

"There is apparently no end to the Corps' appetite for retrofitting the Snake River dams with expensive devices that provide little, if any, benefit to salmon," said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director of the conservation group American Rivers. "This is a self serving proposal designed more to keep ratepayer and taxpayer money flowing into the Army Corps than to recover Snake River salmon."


The Corps proposes improving fish passages like this fish ladder on Ice Harbor Dam
Populations of Snake River salmon and steelhead plummeted following the construction of the four lower Snake River dams in the 1960s and '70s. During the 1990s, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed four separate stocks of Snake River salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.

In 1999, a peer reviewed study released by Trout Unlimited predicted that, at current rates of decline, all Snake River chinook will go extinct between 2008 and 2017. Other fish populations in the River could face a similar fate if the dams remain intact, some biologists warn.

One year ago, the Snake River dams were found by a federal court to be in violation of Clean Water Act standards for temperature and dissolved gas.

"It was a clear error of judgment by the Corps not to address compliance with its legal obligations under the Clean Water Act," the court ruled.


Millions of dollars are now spent trucking young salmon past the dams
Environmental groups, joined by the Nez Perce tribe and the state of Oregon, proved that the dams raise water temperatures and dissolved nitrogen above mandatory water quality standards. The Court ordered the Army Corps to protect the water quality of the Snake River when planning its operation of the dams and their reservoirs.

The current federal plan to restore Snake River salmon is based on a 2000 NMFS biological opinion, known as the salmon plan. The salmon plan will be evaluated at several points, the first of which is next year. If the salmon plan is not being implemented or if it is failing to recover salmon, NMFS may again need to consider removing the four lower Snake River dams.

"Ultimately, the decision about whether to remove the dams won't be the Corps' to make," said Masonis. "The fate of the dams will hinge on what the best science says Snake River salmon need to recover."

The Pacific Northwest has an economic interest in keeping the dams intact: the annual value of power, transportation and water supply provided by the lower Snake River dams is $324 million.


Ice Harbor Lock and Dam turbines
The four dams produce about 1,200 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to power about 900,000 homes, and about five percent of the electricity used in the Pacific Northwest. The dams produce about 12 percent of the electricity sold by the Bonneville Power Administration, providing about $200 million a year to an agency that spends about $250 million a year on programs designed to help fish and wildlife hurt by dams.

The Corps' Environmental Impact Statement is available at: