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Guest column: Participate in the federal Snake River dams public process this week — the stakes are high

by By Kurt Miller
| March 25, 2020 10:55 PM

At this time of national emergency, I’m reminded of the now pervasive British slogan from World War II, “Keep calm and carry on,” as we try to recover a sense of normalcy in the midst of fighting the COVID-19 threat.

It’s easier said than done, but carrying on is important as initiatives that will impact the future of the Northwest march onward. They deserve our attention.

This week represents a critical opportunity to participate in the federal process that will determine the outcome for the operation of the lower Snake River dams.

It has been two decades since the last National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study examined the possibility of dam breaching on the lower Snake River. The current public comment period represents one of the final steps in this NEPA process.

The recently released Draft Environmental Impact Statement shows that the stakes are high.

The DEIS demonstrates that breaching the dams could:

  • More than double the risk of region-wide blackouts.
  • Add 3 million metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year from electricity production.
  • Result in a 25% increase in monthly electric bills for millions of Northwest homes and businesses.
  • Reduce our ability to safely add new wind and solar power to the grid
  • Cost $458 million in social welfare from the loss of irrigated land and jobs for farm laborers.
  • Add 79,000 semi-trucks to the road each year.
  • Increase adult salmon returns to the lower Snake River by as little as 14% or as much as 170%, depending on which fish forecasting model you subscribe to.

A read-through of that list proves that the stakes are high.

Due to COVID-19, the six public meetings originally scheduled across the region have transitioned to teleconferences. People are invited to call in to provide comments. Your comments will be considered by the federal agencies and will become part of the official record of decision.

Two teleconferences now remain — one tonight, March 26, from 4-8 p.m. Pacific Time and one on March 31 from 4-8 p.m.

I’ve participated in the first four teleconferences and there has been ample opportunity to call in. While the NEPA process examines a wide range of potential operations, the comments from participants typically fall into two categories — pro-breaching and anti-breaching.

Pro-breaching advocates have argued:

  • The region tried everything else except dam breaching, so we need to try that now if we are to save lower Snake River salmon.
  • The federal agencies didn’t include the economic impact on sports fishing outfitters and guides.
  • The recommended plan doesn’t fulfill a commitment to salmon recovery.
  • The region needs to do something bold.

Anti-breaching advocates have argued:

  • The greatest threat to salmon and people is climate change. Removing carbon-free resources is a step in the wrong direction.
  • The NEPA study shows that the costs to society are too high and the benefits to salmon are too uncertain to justify dam breaching.
  • Vulnerable communities are dependent on the dams and the affordable energy they provide.
  • Major upgrades at the lower Snake River dams mean that they pass juvenile salmon at very safe rates.

All of these points are compelling, but now we ask that you add your perspective to the conversation.

To participate in one of the last two teleconferences or to provide written comments, visit

Kurt Miller is the executive director for Northwest RiverPartners. NWRP serves over 60 not-for-profit, community-owned utilities across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, all of which are hydroelectric users.