White House Suggests Breaching Dams To Save Endangered Salmon, Even Though It Would Worsen Energy And Supply Chain Issues
US President Joe Biden speaks before signing executive orders on health care, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2021.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommended breaching dams on the Snake River to ensure the survival of endangered salmon — a move that could jeopardize power supplies in the Pacific Northwest and worsen the supply chain crisis.

A Monday draft report from the agency suggested that the four lower Snake River dams should be breached to decrease travel time for salmon, as well as reduce stress on juvenile fish and encounters with powerhouses. The “earthen portion of each dam would be removed, and a naturalized river channel would be established around the concrete spillway and powerhouse structures,” according to the report.

The dams, however, provide 3,033 megawatts of capacity to the Pacific Northwest, according to a 2016 fact sheet from the Bonneville Power Administration. The entity added this month that replacing the dams would cost $415 million to $860 million per year until 2045, amounting to a total cost of up to $19.6 billion and increasing electricity costs for households by up to 18% over the same horizon. The replacement is made more expensive over time “due to increasingly stringent clean energy standards and electrification-driven load growth.”

Indeed, lawmakers from the region — including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) — are calling for President Joe Biden to nix the proposal, noting that the administration issued a declaration of emergency last month with respect to the nation’s grid capacity.

“Today, with the release of these draft reports, one thing is clear: the Biden administration is talking a big game on carbon goals while simultaneously engaging in actions to undermine valuable clean, affordable, and renewable power resources on the Columbia River System, thus compromising energy stability across the region,” the lawmakers’ statement said.

Citing data from the University of Washington, the lawmakers noted that salmon returns have been increasing since 2019, with spring Chinook salmon returns rising 31% above the 10-year average. “We urge this administration to consider the facts, prioritize transparency, and utilize sound science and input from all tribes, industry groups, and the ratepayers themselves before coming to an outcome in any final report that would be catastrophic to the communities we represent,” the statement added.

Last summer, the Pacific Northwest faced rolling blackouts — which are intentionally induced to preserve capacity in the long run — amid an historic heatwave, leading to roughly one dozen deaths. A reliability assessment from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said earlier this year that much of the United States is at a “high risk” or “elevated risk” for rolling blackouts this summer.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) introduced the Federal Columbia River Power System Certainty Act in June to ensure that the lower Snake River dams are not breached.

“Amidst a national energy and supply chain crisis, it is unconscionable that dam-breaching advocates … repeatedly attempt to force a predetermined, unscientific conclusion that will put our communities who are already struggling at risk,” Newhouse said. “In the Pacific Northwest, not only do we depend on this critical infrastructure for clean, renewable, and affordable energy, but transportation for 60% of the nation’s wheat. The Snake River Dams are integral to flood control, navigation, irrigation, agriculture, and recreation in Central Washington and our region cannot afford to lose them.”

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