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Dams & Salmon

OWGL joined two dozen other regional organizations this week in sending letters to the governors and governors-elect of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, identifying principles that should be adopted to guide the development of a region-wide salmon recovery plan.

The letters request that solutions must consider warming, acidifying oceans; be holistic in nature; assess social costs of carbon; weigh likely socioeconomic and health impacts on under-represented and vulnerable communities; not add to the risk of wildfires and other climate-driven disasters; recognize the Congressionally-authorized multiple purposes of our river systems; and undergo non-partisan and rigorous scientific testing.

Read the full letter here.


November 10, 2020

In Joint Letter to Governors, Dozens of Northwest Leaders Urge Holistic Approach to Four-State Salmon Recovery Process


Dear Governors Brown, Bullock, Inslee, Little and Governor-Elect Gianforte:

On behalf of over three million of the region’s community-owned utility customers and thousands of small businesses, farms, and manufacturers which depend on clean, affordable hydropower, recreation, irrigation, and navigation, we thank you for coming together to actively work on salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

We collectively embrace the critical importance of healthy salmon populations for the Pacific Northwest and its Tribal Nations. The communities and organizations we represent live here and care greatly for the region’s natural environment. It is part of our shared Northwest ethic and heritage.

As Northwest states move towards bold clean energy goals, we point out that several of the nation’s most respected environmental advocacy groups recently acknowledged hydropower’s importance in the nation’s fight against climate change.

Regionally, hydropower plays an even bigger role, providing close to half of all our electricity and 90% of our renewable electricity.

As a result, our region has the least carbon-intensive electric service and the most-affordable renewable power in the nation. It is crucial that we retain this leadership position in clean and affordable energy to meet the region’s equity, environmental health, and economic recovery objectives.

Our respective organizations have never believed there is any inherent conflict between the region’s hydropower, irrigation, recreation, and navigation systems and healthy salmon populations. The data reflect this perspective.

Viewed on a decade-by-decade basis, the numbers of adult salmon returning to the Columbia River Basin have seen significant improvements since the lower Columbia River dams and lower Snake River dams were built, bolstered by successful hatchery programs and significant fish passage improvements.

There is no denying, however, that compared to the number of juvenile smolts produced, the overall percentage of returning adults is on the decline. That trend is not unique to the Columbia River Basin.

A new peer-reviewed study published in Fish & Fisheries shows there have been near-uniform declines in Chinook salmon survival across the West Coast of North America over the past 50 years.

This finding includes rivers with dams and those without dams; from pristine rivers in Alaska to more urbanized rivers in the Puget Sound. The study shows these declines have averaged approximately 65% over the 50-year period. Research indicates this general trend applies to steelhead and southern coho populations, as well.

Two other studies released this summer also point to the strong relationship between climate change, warming oceans, and declining salmonid health.

In its recently released Biological Opinion (p 276), NOAA Fisheries showed that climate change appears to have a much larger effect on Chinook salmon survival in the oceans than in rivers. Alarmingly, NOAA indicates Chinook salmon populations may face extinction in 20 to 30 years if the observed relationships between warming ocean temperatures and salmon survival continue.

Pointing to a more hostile ocean environment, due to ocean-warming and competition from pink salmon, scientists at the University of Alaska found the size of Chinook and sockeye salmon in Alaska’s rivers has declined significantly since 1960, as salmon are spending fewer years at sea. The researchers purposely chose a region of North America without dams to isolate this oceanic effect.

It is often implied that breaching the lower Snake River dams will solve the problem of salmon recovery because we are told its habitat is pristine. However, decades of development have taken a toll on many areas of the river. Additionally, the Fish and Fisheries study demonstrates that even truly pristine rivers have experienced equivalent steep declines in adult salmon survival.

In conclusion, the referenced studies show salmon struggles are not isolated to the Columbia River Basin. Instead, we have an ocean-wide problem, which requires a holistic approach and perspective.

Accordingly, we, the signatories of this letter, call for the following guiding principles to effectively guide the four-state process:

  • Trans-Oceanic Acknowledgement: Solutions must be grounded in the fact there is strong scientific research demonstrating the declines in key salmon populations are due to warming, acidifying oceans that are shifting the balance between salmon predators and prey. If these trends continue, salmon survival may decline even further. If this reality is not understood as the baseline, then the solutions that come out of the four-state process will inevitably be unsuccessful.
  • Holistic Approach: Solutions must be holistic in nature, addressing the broad nature of salmon survival declines. As a result, favored solutions should prioritize efforts to address challenges in the shared ocean environment.
  • Social Cost of Carbon: Solutions must be evaluated for their effect on the social cost of carbon. The recently adopted Record of Decision for Columbia River System Operations includes data-driven estimates for carbon production increases if hydropower generation is diminished.
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Solutions must be examined for their likely socioeconomic and health impacts for under-represented and vulnerable communities that need access to affordable energy, clean air, and agricultural jobs. The recently adopted Record of Decision for Columbia River System Operations includes relevant scenarios for increased customer costs if hydropower generation is diminished.
  • Wildfires & Climate-Driven Disasters: Solutions must not add to the risk of wildfires and other climate-driven disasters that can affect both salmon and people.
  • Balanced: Solutions must be balanced in nature when evaluating the hydropower system, recognizing the Congressionally-authorized multiple purposes of the Federal Columbia River Power System. These purposes include flood control, navigation, recreation, irrigation, and electricity production.
  • Scientific Rigor: Solutions that would diminish significant clean energy resources and/or low carbon transportation infrastructure must undergo non-partisan and rigorous scientific testing before adoption.

Once again, we thank you for your efforts as you plan to bring diverse stakeholder groups together to help the region recover threatened and endangered salmon populations. This goal is incredibly important. We offer our pledge to assist you in the process as regional stakeholders and to provide subject matter expertise.

Final Environmental Impact Statement

From Northwest RiverPartners on July 31, 2020

Completes Four Year Federal Process; Settles Debate on the Value of the Lower Snake River Dams

Northwest RiverPartners Commends Thorough & Holistic EIS Process; Advocates Greater Efforts Around Climate To Support Salmon Recovery

Northwest RiverPartners today welcomed the much anticipated Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) released by federal action agencies as part of the Columbia River System Operations (CRSO) process.

Developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the US Bureau of Reclamation, with input from tribal nations and Northwest states, the FEIS provides a comprehensive, final analysis of the four lower Snake River dams (LSRD). It balances the needs of salmon, power supply, and social welfare in the Pacific Northwest.

The report concluded that the best option for fulfilling the multiple objectives of improving salmonid survival, providing a reliable electric grid, and reaching the Northwest’s clean energy future is to maintain the four LSRD with adjusted operations.

Importantly, the FEIS acknowledges the role of the LSRD as a critical source of affordable and dependable energy for the Northwest and reiterates that without the LSRD, the Northwest would be much more susceptible to energy shortages and regional blackouts.

The socio-economic consequences to communities of losing the LSRD would have been dire. The FEIS estimates that the cost of replacing the LSRD with other renewable energy sources backed up with batteries would have approached $800 million per year. That roughly equates to a 25% increase in electricity bills for millions of Northwest residents and businesses.

Exorbitant electricity bills would create economic chaos at a time when we are already reeling from a global pandemic, a homelessness crisis, and an affordable housing shortage.

Achieving a sustainable future requires that we embrace the needs of all communities, and, in particular, the escalating plight of our most vulnerable; Native American tribes, communities of color, immigrant communities, and low-income families.

The report is clear that the potential benefit to salmon from dam breaching varies widely according to modeling assumptions, but the harm to communities that rely on hydropower would have been devastating.

Salmon a Major FEIS Focus

Salmon and steelhead recovery is a critical area of focus in the FEIS. In particular, there has been much debate about the importance of increased spill levels at dams for salmonid survival.

Many salmon advocates believe spilling water with juvenile salmonids over the dams’ spillways—rather than allowing smolts to go through fish bypass systems or past turbines—is beneficial for the salmon and steelhead life cycle. Others argue that higher spill could induce gas bubble trauma in juveniles and increase up-river migration for adults.

The FEIS has adopted an operation that invests millions of dollars annually to test whether increased spill will help or hinder salmonids. The new operation incorporates dramatically higher levels of spill than ever before as part of season-long hydroelectric operations. This operation is part of the continuation of the Flexible Spill Agreement arrived at by Northwest states and many tribal nations in 2018 and put into action in 2019.

The FEIS also calls for continued significant investments in habitat restoration as part of a holistic approach to helping salmonids.

Biological Opinion

Today’s EIS release coincides with the release of a NOAA Fisheries’ Biological Opinion, which examined the proposed hydroelectric operations under the EIS Preferred Alternative. It found that the recommended operations are consistent with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

While past Biological Opinions have been found by the federal court to be inconsistent with the requirements of the ESA, it is our belief that the great lengths taken by the federal agencies to examine dam breaching and other options will demonstrate to the court that the federal action agencies have presented a thoughtful plan, which is consistent with salmon and steelhead recovery objectives.

NWRP espouses hydropower as an important source of affordable, clean energy for the Northwest and embraces the critical need to protect our salmon. We welcome the findings presented in the FEIS and the Biological Opinion. We have always believed that salmon and dams can coexist.

Climate Change & Salmon

We are deeply aware of the need to find strong solutions for the plight of our salmon—a tenet profoundly acknowledged in the EIS.

Given the near-synchronous decline in worldwide salmon populations, addressing climate change and deteriorating oceans are necessary steps for salmon recovery.

NOAA Fisheries’ analysis from the Biological Opinion shows that ocean warming and acidification due to climate change represent a significant and growing threat to healthy salmonid populations. Breaching the lower Snake River dams, conversely, would almost certainly increase the region’s carbon footprint and contribute to further harmful ocean changes.

To meet salmon recovery efforts, we advocate a more reasonable approach through a continued push towards decarbonization to help reverse the worldwide trend in declining salmon runs.

Thorough, Collaborative Process

We hope the Environmental Impact Statement and its in-depth decision-making process bring closure for all stakeholders involved and a firmer conviction around the critical role of the hydropower system, which provides the Northwest with the most affordable carbon-free, renewable energy in the nation.

PNW States Statement

What we can do

Oregon’s wheat growers and rural communities, along with other PNW states, collectively depend on the broad range of direct and indirect benefits provided by the Columbia-Snake River dams for transportation, power, flood control, irrigation, recreation, and infrastructure. The Columbia Snake River System is the nation’s single largest wheat export gateway. Barging plays a key role in this transportation system and moved over 4 million tons of wheat to Lower Columbia River ports last year. Each year, nearly 10% of all U.S. wheat exports move by barge just on the Snake River.

Oregon Wheat Growers League urges all of our stakeholders to engaged in the comment period for the draft EIS, ending April 13, 2020.

We encourage your participation in the conversation about the community benefits provided by the hydroelectric dams and locks of the Columbia-Snake River System.

PNWA has created guidance and blocks of information that you may use in letters to elected officials, opinion pieces in your local media, social media posts, comments to the federal agencies, and other venues.

For more information, visit

Articles to Review

How this may effect Oregon Wheat

Loss of these four facilities will cause irreparable damage to the PNW economy, including Oregon’s wheat growers, not limiting to,

  • Transportation and storage expense are likely to increase 50% to 100% for grain suppliers and shippers. These costs could increase by up to $0.80 per bushel if barging on the Snake River is removed as a transportation option.
  • Diesel fuel consumption to increase by nearly 5 million gallons per year as barges are replaced by much less efficient truck-to-rail shipments.
  • Highway, rail and grain elevator networks would need over $1.6 billion in capital investment.
  • The loss of hydropower generation will reduce the baseload power available to balance the power provided by variable generation sources like wind and solar.
  • Carbon emissions from transportation and replacement power generation would greatly increase, something the State of Oregon is supposedly trying to reduce with countless other policy initiatives


  • Barging is the safest method of moving cargo, with a lower number of injuries, fatalities and spill rates than both rail and trucks. It is also the most fuel efficient and has the lowest emissions.
  • One standard barge on any of these rivers takes 134 semi-trucks off our roads, while one barge tow takes 538 semi-trucks off our roads.
  • At least 201 additional unit trains and 23.8 million miles in additional trucking activity would be required annually if the Snake River dams were removed.
  • The installation of surface passage has reduced the percentage of fish that go through the powerhouse (turbine), also decreasing the fish travel time through the system. There is a 97 percent juvenile fish survival rate, which is reaching levels seen in rivers without dams and increasing overall survival rates.
  • Texas Transportation Institute/MARAD study showed trucks at 169 miles for 1 ton of cargo moved on 1 gallon of diesel . Rail is 412 miles, inland barging is 475 miles.
  • A better one is Corps of Engineers study of Columbia River barging. One 3600 ton barge of wheat, Lewiston to Portland is 2200 gallons of diesel. Rail is 5300 gallons, trucking is 16,400 gallons for the same tonnage.
  • PNWA Fact Sheet
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