Why We Should Appreciate Our PNW Dams

Earlier this year, Jessie Thomas-Blate of American Rivers referred to 2017 as a “dam good year for dam removal,” arguing that removing our country’s dams aids fish populations and flood protection. This line of thinking is flawed. Part of the environmental efforts that must remain a constant in the Pacific Northwest are our dams. In addition to helping with irrigation and flood control, dams are a crucial source of renewable energy and contribute to energy independence; dams on the Columbia River Basin produce more than half of the electricity consumed in the entire Pacific Northwest. The dams on the Snake River alone in Washington State provide 7% of the state’s electric power, which as much as the state’s solar and wind power produce combined-- that’s enough electricity to power 1.87 million homes.

Hydropower is one of the main reasons why the state’s electricity costs are so low. When all the dams in Washington State are factored in, almost 70% of all the energy produced in the state comes from hydropower; and at a time when it is crucial that the United States push for the increased use of renewable energy sources to foster a healthier environment, dams are simply too important to tear down. Additionally, they are major contributors to the economy, creating close to 40,000 jobs. Teddy Roosevelt made water power a national issue during his presidency in the early twentieth century, and now is not the time to abandon the work that he started.

The reason some wish to take down the Snake River Dams is because of the declining salmon population in the PNW. The arguments state that salmon have been unable to move along the river in the preferred numbers because of the dams, hurting fish populations and the amount of food available to local orcas. However,  96% of the fish currently passing through the dams are successfully making it to the other side alive and well, a figure that meets the biological goal set by the NOAA. This leaves marginal room for improvement, but even the best-case scenario of 100% of fish passing through would not significantly change the current situation.

Tearing down the dams would be costly, and filling the energy deficit and environmental benefits they bring to the region would cost upwards of $200 million a year. Proposals to replace the energy that the dams produce using solar panels would generate 30% less power annually because of the PNW cooler climate. Removing the dams is not the best solution, instead we should be looking at reducing salmon predators such as sea lions and increasing our use of hatchery fish to give the orcas a better supply of salmon. There are other ways to solve these issues, and the dams are simply too important.

The efforts by those who wish to remove the Snake River Dams are well intentioned, wanting to help the salmon and steelhead populations, but removing them would be far more costly than the marginal benefit that it would provide. It is vital that we explore other methods to help our fish populations while keeping our versatile dams intact.

Spencer McLaughlinComment