One of the Northwest’s longest running environmental debates is how to maintain a reliable, affordable electricity system while restoring our iconic salmon populations. Last month we told the historical story of how three federal agencies – the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bonneville Power Agency – strung a series of dams across the Columbia and Snake Rivers for flood control, irrigation, and electricity.

Unfortunately, it has been determined that four of these dams along the lower Snake River in Washington are the major impediment to salmon and steelhead migrating between the vast, protected spawning habitat in Idaho and the Pacific Ocean. Over the years, drastically falling fish populations led to several species of salmon and steelhead being listed under the Endangered Species Act, triggering the obligation for these federal agencies to reduce the impacts the dams may have on the fish. Since then, the agencies have engaged in one of the largest environmental mitigation efforts in the world.

A New Look

Why has our region spent millions on failed mitigation efforts instead of removing a major impediment to salmon? Well debate has been hung up on an assumption that each of the dams that make up the Federal Columbia River Power System is essential to maintaining a reliable, affordable energy system. To check that assumption a key ICL ally, the Northwest Energy Coalition, commissioned The Lower Snake River Dams Replacement Study which focused on options to maintain a reliable, affordable electric system while removing the four dams the present a major impediment to salmon recovery in Idaho.

The study uses the same industry standard tools and data that the Bonneville Power Administration does. It shows that investing in helping homes and businesses conserve energy, and leveraging low cost energy sources, will make the overall system much more reliable. What this study shows is that the old assumption was wrong. Today it is the electric system overall that matters and not any specific component.

We Can Find Win-Win-Win

This study should encourage the Bonneville Power Agency as it prepares for a rapidly changing electricity system in our region. BPA faces steeply rising costs to maintain the aging system, including specifically these four dams. BPA also faces steeply rising costs to mitigate the impacts of the dams on salmon and steelhead. Accordingly, BPA has goal to weigh the relative value of each part of the system.

This study shows that when considered using industry standard tools and data, these dams are not necessary to maintain a reliable system and that better options are readily available. We hope this will lead BPA to conclude that the relative value of these dams is quite low, because they are expensive to maintain and are a primary driver of the ever-increasing costs of failing salmon mitigation efforts. For more details, read the  Idaho Statesman’s article.

We commend this study because it provides a path towards a win-win-win solution – BPA avoids ever-increasing costs, customers enjoy a reliable, affordable system, and salmon enjoy a free swim up the lower Snake River into Idaho’s vast salmon and steelhead spawning habitat.