By Martin Kidston
When the steelhead call, Sam Lungren heads to the Salmon and Clearwater rivers to get a fix, spending his idle time angling for the legendary fish.
Though he lives several hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, the inland reaches of the Columbia River Basin provide a rich wildlife resource, though he fears it’s vanishing due to the many dams that block aquatic migration from the coast.
“We’re so lucky that we get to do that so many hundreds of miles from the ocean,” Lungren said of steelhead fishing. “But it’s been going downhill rapidly. It baffles me that these Snake River dams are still being propped up when there’s not that much value in them.”
Lungren was one of several hundred western Montana residents who attended a public scoping meeting in Missoula on Thursday night, one focused on the Columbia River System and the operation of 14 federal dams within the basin.
In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the three “action agencies,” including the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, are looking at ways to adjust the system’s operation as the climate changes and the region’s values shift.
The environmental impact study, which began this year, must weigh the environmental and socioeconomic impacts across a range of issues that include power generation, river navigation, recreation and irrigation, among others. The meeting in Missoula marked the seventh in a series of 15 scoping meetings scheduled across the Pacific Northwest.
“We need to know if we’re operating the systems correctly,” said Bill Dowell with the Army Corps. “We haven’t done an EIS in many years, and many things have changed since then. We have navigation and irrigation, fish passage and flood reduction. It’s huge to balance all that, and it’s huge to do it with three different organizations.”
Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ruled that the government’s plan to recover salmon and steelhead throughout the basin failed to address the dams’ effect on the fish. In doing so, the judge criticized the current plan for underestimating the effects of climate change on fish survival.
Environmental groups are pushing for the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River, including Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite dams. Opponents, however, say dams throughout the Columbia Basin play a vital role in carbon-free power generation, navigation and recreation.
“We’re here because we have endangered fish,” said Dean Peterson, a Dillon rancher and director of the Vigilante Electric Coop. “The issue that keeps coming back in the lawsuits is breaching the dams. To me, that’s not really an option.”
According to the three action groups behind the latest EIS, hydropower provided by the dams within the Columbia Basin generate the bulk of the electricity that feeds the Pacific Northwest. While coal and natural gas each provide 11.8 percent of the generating makeup, hydropower provides 35 percent.
For Peterson, losing hydro as a source of clean power isn’t an option.
“If you take out a lot of hydro generation, you’ve got to replace it with something,” he said. “If you want to replace it with wind or solar, you’ve got to back that up with something, which produces carbon.”
Eve James with the Bonneville Power Administration said the dams provide homes across the region with electric power, though that figure ranges by dam. The Libby Dam can supply 185,000 homes with electricity, while the system’s largest, the Grand Coulee Dam, can provide more than 1.9 million homes with power.
James said the dams do more than provide clean energy. The system is flexible, giving operators the ability to increase or decrease generation to meet changes in demand. It can also pick up generation from renewable sources, including wind, she said.
“We integrate a very large wind fleet in the Bonneville territory – around 4,800 megawatts of wind generation capacity,” said James. “Through the flexibility of the hydro system, we’re able to offset wind as a generating power. That wouldn’t be possible without the hydro system.”
The issue of power also plays into the larger issue of climate change. According to the action groups, the global annual average temperature has increased 1.5 degrees since 1880. While warming is not evenly spread throughout the planet, the Pacific Northwest hasn’t escaped unharmed.
To understand the impacts of climate change and how to adjust system operations within the Columbia Basin, the study is looking at data provided by the universities of Washington and Oregon, including new precipitation and streamflow models, and temperature outlooks.
“We’re expecting higher winter flows mostly in the southern half of the basin as temperatures continue to warm,” said Erik Pytlak, the climate change technical lead with Bonneville Power.
“Here in Idaho and western Montana, more of that winter precipitation is going to start falling as rain. We’ll still get snow in the mountains, but there will be less of it. It could impact a lot of different functions of the river. There’s a long list of what this could impact.”
The Columbia River Basin has historically relied upon snowmelt to fill its waterways, but with less winter snowfall, summer flows are expected to drop. That could change the basin’s ecosystem and hydrology, as well as the region’s economy.
As the basin dries during the summer, reservoir operations could become more difficult.
“If you get the water early in the winter, there’s less flow available in the summer,” said Pytlak. “We already have large precipitation swings in the Columbia Basin, and that’s likely to continue under climate change. What we do see is the warming taking effect and that precipitation falling as rain.”
The warming climate and the Columbia River System’s known impacts on fish have led Lungren to advocate for breaching the dams and restoring the habitat to its historic state.
When in college, he wrote his thesis on the removal of the Elwha Dam, which was authorized by then-President George Bush in 1992, though it wasn’t completed until 2012.
Lungren, a board member with the American Fly Fishing Trade Association and editor of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ journal, would like to see the process repeated in the Columbia River Basin to save the fish.
“They pick up the salmon smolt in trucks and take them around these dams instead of letting them run the river, because it’s not really a river anymore – it’s a series of stagnant lakes,” said Lungren. “All the dams are there for is transporting grain from Idaho and eastern Washington to the coast, which could be done much more efficiently by rail. It all really dates back to some kid of Cold War-era posturing to make Lewiston, Idaho, the world’s furthest inland seaport.”
The scoping process is expected to result in a draft EIS in the fall of 2019. Comments on the issue will be accepted through Jan. 17, 2017.
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at email@example.com