Why is bad science protecting the Lower Snake River dams?

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the country's dam-building agency, sounded like it knew what it was talking about in 2002. After spending six years and $30 million, the agency confidently recommended not breaching four fish-killing dams on the Lower Snake River.

But now, backed by 15 years of data primarily from the Corps itself, we can say that the Corps was dead wrong. Its claims of being able to help salmon flourish while keeping the dams intact were wildly optimistic. Here's what the agency's Walla Walla District staffers believed was better than breaching:

• The agency said it could "fix" the four dams for passage of juvenile threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. So taxpayers spent over $700 million for improvements to the four dams and McNary Dam on the Columbia.

The result? The hydro-system's 2000-2012 average smolt survival for wild chinook salmon was just 52 percent, and for wild steelhead just 45 percent. Most of the highest survival years coincided with the increased spills mandated by Federal District Judge James Redden. In late 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service concluded: "Chinook survival through the hydropower system has remained relatively stable since 1999, with the exception of lower estimates in 2001 and 2004." So now we know: $700 million essentially did little to boost smolt survival.

• The agency claimed that the four dams were needed because the Lower Snake waterway would see increasing volumes of freight, such as paper, pulp, logs, petroleum, grain and other farm commodities.

Not true; over the past 20 years, the total freight transported on the Lower Snake's reservoirs has declined by 69 percent. Agriculture is one of the few industries that hasn't pretty much abandoned the waterway, and even the region's farmers have begun developing cooperative rail hubs and engaging rail companies in shipping discussions. At 2014's end, container-on-barge (COB) traffic, in particular, had declined by 82 percent, and in April 2015, the waterway's only COB port, the Port of Lewiston, indefinitely suspended all COB shipping. In fact, the Corps' itself identifies the waterway as "of negligible use."

• The Corps predicted that loss of power due to dam breaching would be costly and, according to a 2002 Corps' planner, it also considered wind energy "inconsequential."

Although the four dams' generating capacity was designed to total 3,033 megawatts, the 2000-2012 average annual output was just 961 megawatts. Wind power, meanwhile, has surged, and in the Pacific Northwest boasts an 8,976 megawatt capacity. In 2012, wind produced 2,007 megawatts -- twice that produced by all four dams.

• The Corps also said the four dams' 24 turbines (with expected 35-to-45-year lifespans) could be rehabilitated twice, during the Lower Snake project's 100 years, for $380 million.

During the next 15 years, however, all 24 turbines will exceed 45 years, and three at Ice Harbor Dam are already being rehabbed at a contract price of $97 million. Thus, calculated in today's dollars, one 24-turbine rehab would cost about $776 million, and two would cost over $1.5 billion.

In 2002, the Corps did identify potential benefits of dam-breaching, such as increased angling, commercial fishing, general recreation, and a benefit it identifies as "passive use" values, including public appreciation of the integrity of a natural river and its availability for generations to come. The total benefit calculated for post-breaching annual passive use alone was a hefty $420.13 million. Yet the Corps ignored its own finding.

Doing so today would be illegal. A 2013 policy, "Federal Principles and Guidelines for Water and Land Related Resources Implementation Studies," now requires the inclusion of passive values. If this policy had been in place in 2002, the Corps would have had to admit that leaving the four dams intact made no sense from an economic perspective.

When Jim Waddell of Port Angeles, Washington, a retired 35-year veteran of the Corps, recently reanalyzed the agency's 2002 study, he found that it had underestimated the cost of retaining the four dams by $160.7 million a year over the project's 100-year life. What's more, he says, internal Corps documents clearly show that the Walla Walla District knew there were false assumptions, errors and omissions in the agency's study. Nonetheless, for reasons of cost and expediency, the Corps chose not to correct those errors.

Waddell's analysis is revelatory and deeply disturbing. Let's hope that it opens the agency's eyes so that staffers weigh the true costs and potential waste of keeping these four dams in place. Let's hope, too, that it opens the eyes of national leaders evaluating infrastructural wastes versus needs. It is long past time for the river to run free.

Borg Hendrickson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. She lives in north central Idaho, and is co-author of Clearwater Country: The Traveler's Historical and Recreational Guide, Lewiston, Idaho - Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.