November 11, 2020
In 2016 a U.S. District Court judge ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restore Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead, and specifically to consider dam removal and climate change in a plan for recovery. Now, the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration are responding with a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Columbia River Basin, expected in early spring 2020. Following the release of the draft EIS, there will be a 45-day public comment period.
A focus of the EIS will be the lethal warmwater reservoirs created by the four lower Snake River dams. The outcome of the EIS will affect some of the West’s most historic steelhead rivers, including Snake River tributaries like the Grande Ronde River in Oregon and the Clearwater River in Idaho.
The Clearwater was closed to steelhead fishing in the fall of 2019 due to poor returns, and returning adult salmon and steelhead numbers in the whole Columbia River Basin were some of the lowest on record. Only 6,863 spring/summer Chinook and nearly 11,000 steelhead were counted in 2019 in the entire watershed, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
According to Wendy McDermott, Northwest director of American Rivers (americanrivers.org), it’s critical that the public is properly represented in the final EIS, expected in the summer of 2020.
“We need people to go on record and let the federal government know they want self-sustaining, harvestable populations of salmon and steelhead in these rivers. Right now, these rivers are on life support. We want the new plan to not just hit the goals of getting these salmon off the endangered species list, we want to plan for robust salmon stocks for future generations,” said McDermott.
"Removing the four lower Snake dams must be part of any real salmon and steelhead restoration strategy. Not only will 140 miles of the lower Snake once again turn into a free-€‹flowing river with habitat complexity, but 5,500 miles of high-elevation spawning habitat will become more accessible to salmon and steelhead.
“Any plan to remove the dams to recover salmon and steelhead must also be a part of a broader platform that makes strategic investments to modernize our new energy future, meets our obligations to sovereign tribal nations, improves aging infrastructure, and supports a growing agricultural economy.”
During most of the year, the energy produced by the four lower Snake River dams acts as reserve, needed only in times of peak demand. Changes in the energy market, including more energy efficiencies in the Pacific Northwest, cheap natural gas, and other renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, have made hydroelectric power from the lower Snake River dams unnecessary.
To comment on the draft EIS for the Columbia River Basin, visit nwd.usace.army.mil/CRSO/.