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Snake River dams: Bad for fish, good for planet

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 20, 2009 at 7:45 pm with 3 Comments »
August 20, 2009 7:45 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Given the specter of climate change, 1,000 megawatts of carbon-neutral power – enough to power all of Seattle – are a precious commodity.

Somehow, that fact seems lost on the people who remain bent on breaching the four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River.

Once again, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D- Seattle, has offered Congress a bill designed to expedite the effective dismantling of those dams, which do in fact routinely generate 1,000 megawatts and can more than triple that to meet spikes in demand. McDermott wants to empower the Army secretary to remove the earthen portions of the dam to give salmon easier passage up and down the river.

Congress already has the power to breach the dams or tear them out entirely; this bill is a ploy to yank that decision from the democratic process.

To their credit, neither of Washington’s U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, supports the measure. Neither does Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, the state’s 800-pound gorilla in the House of Representatives.

Dicks, Murray and Cantwell are supposedly bucking their environmentalist supporters. Are environmentalists really monolithic on this issue?

Anyone concerned about global warming ought to feel at least some qualms about the loss of such an abundant source of renewable, carbon-free electricity.

Many opponents of the dams brush off the carbon problem. They talk as if wind power and conservation will readily replace the dams’ nearly 3,500 megawatts of combined capacity.

We’d much rather see the conservation and wind first replace the dirty coal power that accounts for 20 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity. When they finish replacing the coal, they should start replacing the natural gas turbines that – though far cleaner than coal – still emit carbon dioxide.

From a climate-change perspective, it would be madness to shut down 1,000 megawatts of clean hydro while leaving fossil-fuel plants merrily spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

This isn’t just a question of climate, of course. The dams do hamper the passage of fish, including several endangered salmon runs.

But those species have been kept alive – though close to the edge – for many years now with fish-friendlier river management. In any case, there’s no guarantee that breaching the dams would save the runs, which are heavily impacted by ocean conditions, especially temperature.

Temperature – as in what goes up when there’s more carbon dioxide in the air.

It’s understandable that certain groups – including Idaho tourism and sport-fishing lobbies – are fixated on the salmon side of the equation. But there’s a real disconnect when someone who professes deep concern about global warming is willing to kiss off dams that produce so much power and so little carbon dioxide.

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Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. crusader says:

    Dam breaching isn’t about science, data, facts, or terror free energy sources our society desperately needs. It’s about emotion and feel good liberalism with disregard for the consequences.

  2. Patrick O'Callahan says:

    Below is the gist of the article Bob referenced. It was written in 2007 by the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser.

    My take: The carbon impacts of building dams and creating reservoirs are sunk costs on the Snake River – the dams are already built.

    The carbon impact of reservoirs is speculative and poorly researched: It could be positive or negative, depending on the project. There’s big impact in the tropics, where large amounts of vegetation wind up rotting under a new reservoir. Carbon emissions fall in later years. In the arid Lower Snake River Basin, dams – especially old, already-built dams – have to be a whole lot better than burning fossil fuels.

    Electrons are fungible. Until the Northwest no longer gets electrons from coal and gas-fired plants, replacing electrons from hydro power with electrons from other renewables is wasting an opportunity to cut carbon emissions.

    Emissions occur, first, during cement-making and construction for a dam. More happens when land behind it is flooded, causing vegetation to rot, releasing carbon dioxide and methane.

    Emissions continue throughout the dam’s life as more organic matter washes in from upstream, and when water is released to make electricity, causing a pressure drop that frees gases locked within the stored water.

    “If these are going to be built as a response to climate change, you at least need to convene some people to study the effect it will have,” said Danny Cullenward, a research associate at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. “The facts are in that it’s not a zero-impact source from an emissions standpoint.”

    Natural lakes may produce emissions in the same way. But the effects could be greater in man-made reservoirs because water levels change more dramatically behind dams. And, like any other man-made energy source, reservoirs would be counted as an addition of greenhouse gases beyond natural levels.

    “Obviously, there’s some irony if measures supposed to help us adapt to climate change are themselves contributing to the problem,” said Patrick McCully, executive director of the International Rivers Network in Oakland.

    Research shows that some reservoirs have a positive effect, absorbing more carbon dioxide than they emit. In either case, the effects vary according to geology, climate, reservoir operations and other factors.

  3. I take the gist of this editorial as saying that we should accept destroying major salmon runs and an important component of the regional environment (and culture and economy) in order to help protect the global environment.

    I accept that a certain amount of triage may be necessary in the fight against global warming, but “destroying the environment to save it” is dangerous path to choose when another path is available.

    In this case it’s feasible at a relatively small price for this region to wean itself off carbon-producing power and remove its most destructive, least beneficial dams — with the lower Snake dams as the largest examples of dams that ought to be removed given the balance of their costs and benefits.

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