Monday, October 02, 2023

Commentary: Snake River Whac-A-Mole needs to stop

by Don C Brunell
| June 22, 2023 1:00 AM

To supporters of the four Lower Snake River dams, the latest news that President Biden continues to pursue dam breaching is not shocking, but surprising, considering the growing shortfall in electricity predicted in the western states and his desire to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

Biden’s March 21 announcement started another “Whac-A-Mole” game to determine the dams’ future.

The news was reported in a Wall Street Journal commentary by Faith Bottum titled “Biden’s fishy plan to breach the Snake River dams.” She wrote that Biden is determined to bring “healthy and abundant salmon runs back to the Colorado River system.” (He really meant the Columbia River.)

Whac-A-Mole is an arcade game in which players are given mallets to strike mole-like pop-ups which randomly appear. The game starts out slow but gradually increases in speed –much like what is happening with the dams.

It was invented in 1975 – about the same time dam removers started their efforts to take down Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams. Those dams are located on the 100-mile stretch of the river between Clarkston and Pasco, Washington.

Construction of the dams, fish ladders and navigation locks started with Ice Harbor in 1955 and concluded with Lower Granite in 1975.

According to Bottum, the 2020 federal Energy Department and the Bonneville Power Administration concluded rebuilding the salmon stocks did not require sacrificing electricity meaning the four dams could stay put.

“But when the Biden administration took office, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reversed course claiming the science robustly supports dam breaching,” Bottum added.

Sound fishy?

Absent in the president’s discussion is the number of salmon and steelhead killed by sea lions. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, they consume up to 44% of the Columbia River’s spring Chinook salmon run and 25% of the Willamette winter steelhead run each year.

Also missing is a way to fund the $15 billion replacement costs of the greenhouse gas-free generation from the Snake River powerhouses and if an equivalent amount of electricity is available.

Northwest RiverPartners estimates that if the lower Snake River dams are removed, an additional 14,900 megawatts of resources will be required. This is enough electricity to power 15 cities the size of Seattle.

Bottum added: “It would require roughly three million solar panels occupying 6,000 acres to replace the dams’ generating capacity.”

Also pushed aside is the impact on agriculture exports. Agfax reports 60% of wheat exports out of the Pacific Northwest region, or 10% of all American wheat exports, are barged through the four dams’ locks.

The U.S. Wheat Associates reports: “One barge can carry the same amount of wheat as 35 rail cars or 134 trucks. A barge tow can carry more than one 100-unit train or 538 trucks. One barge can move a ton of wheat 647 miles per gallon while a truck can only move a ton of wheat 145 miles per gallon.”

An Energy GPS analysis concludes breaching the dams would also increase transportation-related air pollutants by 53% for wheat which is currently transported along the lower Snake River.

If the president’s goal is to substantially beef up the electricity grid to power electric vehicles, to retire natural gas stoves and water heaters, to phase out natural gas and coal-fired generating facilities, to keep the lights, heaters and air conditioner running and to become carbon neutral, it is difficult to understand how he plans to do it by taking down those dams.

He would be wise to rethink his Lower Snake River strategy rather the being part of the perpetuation of what has become the ongoing “Whac-A-Mole” political game.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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