Reactions to Washington state's newly released draft report examining the positive and negative impacts of removing the four lower Snake River dams are as varied as the views represented in the report itself.

To some, it underestimates the full potential of economic benefits that would come with dam removal by failing to include potential positive benefits to communities upstream and downstream from the dams, or new clean-energy production that would arise to replace power generated by the dams. Or, it inadequately portrays the importance of salmon to the fishing communities that used to depend on the once-plentiful Snake River runs.

To others, it fails to emphasize the "extreme uncertainty" about whether breaching the dams would actually help recover fish runs. Or, it leaves out important recent analyses on potential energy shortages and on real costs to agriculture and land values if irrigation systems must be replaced.

Some groups and elected officials continue to complain the state spent $750,000 to hire consultants to tell us what is already known—there are major differences in opinion and large gaps in definitive answers. "Federal agencies are already studying salmon and the river system and will have a draft report for the region to review in February," Kristin Meira, executive director for the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said in a news release. Breaching the four dams will be one alternative analyzed in the upcoming Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement (EIS).

Washington's report was developed, in part, to inform how or whether Washington state will weigh in on that EIS.

But for at least some groups on both sides of the debate, the draft Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Engagement Report offers an opportunity to step away from the arguments and litigation over Federal Columbia River Power System operations, and look closely at how to recover fish populations while supporting communities that depend on them and ensuring the Bonneville Power Administration remains economically viable.

"For the better part of 20 years or so, to a large degree, the two sides have been talking past each other," Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the NW Energy Coalition, told NW Fishletter. "That's the beauty of the stakeholder process. Frankly, it's forcing all of us to come to grips with the concerns of the other side in a way that hasn't been done before."

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said his organization had been among those opposed to the stakeholder process. Many public-power utilities urged Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the Legislature's allocation for it. Miller told NW Fishletter that one of their biggest objections was how the process was described in the Southern Resident Orca Task Force's recommendations, which sought to "Establish a stakeholder process to discuss potential breaching or removal of the lower Snake River Dams for the benefit of Southern Resident orcas."

But the report itself focuses on costs and benefits of both keeping the dams and removing them. "I think it became much more fair when they reframed it," Miller said, adding, "The place where I find hope is, when you read the report you come away with the understanding that there isn't a simple solution—that if we just remove the dams, everything will be OK. This is saying that there is no simple solution out there, and from that perspective, I don't think it was a waste."

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, told NW Fishletter he hopes the report will be used as more than just an advisory on the upcoming EIS. "By design, the report is neutral, and it reports on the perspectives and perceptions of people," he said. "There are some disagreements around the science—that's always been the case, and it doesn't try to resolve that. But I think one of the goals of this process is to shed light on these different issues and help increase understanding, and I think this report is helpful in that regard."

He added that the cost is relatively small compared to what's been spent fighting over these issues. "I think this will prove to be money well spent," he said.

Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, said it appears to him the State of Washington is putting itself in a position to mediate a regional strategy acceptable to all once the federal EIS is released.

Olsen told NW Fishletter his association was not among the stakeholders interviewed, and its recent white paper on dam removal costs to irrigation was left out of the draft. He said after meeting with the governor's office, he hopes to see its findings—which say irrigators would need between $446 million and $622 million to compensate for breaching the dams or drawing down reservoirs—in the final report.

And while he doesn't think the report thoroughly examines all the information available, he does think it can be used as a springboard for finding solutions to the longstanding litigation.

"When we had a follow-up meeting with the governor's office, the impression I got—which we view as positive—is that they'll try to use this report to identify additional paths to move forward after the draft EIS comes out," Olsen said.

In addition to how the report will be used, groups long involved in the lower Snake River dam debate offered more specific comments about the report.

Miller said as part of its comments on the report, Northwest RiverPartners will submit a third party analysis by consultant Energy GPS examining the strengths and weaknesses of an April 2018 study that found energy from the four dams can be replaced with other clean and renewable resources at a relatively low cost to ratepayers. Commissioned by the NW Energy Coalition, the study done by Energy Strategies was frequently referenced in the governor's report.

Energy GPS found that "[k]ey assumptions of the NWEC Study are already out-of-date and do not reflect the current state policies nor the PNW's forecasted capacity shortfall."

It also found the study does not adequately discuss the appropriate priority of dam replacement resources relative to competing needs for new energy resources; that energy efficiency and demand response assumptions used in the study's nongenerator alternatives are costly and infeasible; and that the study relies on imports to meet energy and capacity shortfalls.

Miller said as one of the groups interviewed in the stakeholder process, RiverPartners also critiqued the ECONorthwest analysis that found removing the dams would bring the equivalent of $8.65 billion in economic benefits to the region, after factoring in the value electric customers place on a restored, free-flowing river and reduced risk of extinction for salmon. The same analysis recognized "extreme uncertainty" over whether breaching the dams would help recover endangered fish—something RiverPartners pointed out to consultants, Miller said. "There are a lot more questions out there, scientifically, about whether dam breaching would truly benefit fish. It's the one place we would have liked to have seen a little more balance in the findings," he said.

NWEC's O'Leary said the ECONorthwest study, and therefore the governor's report, actually left out many other potential economic benefits.

He said there is a great deal in the governor's report about economic impacts for the Tri-Cities region. "There are also, as we know, a lot of implications beyond that particular area," he added, pointing to upstream and downstream communities that rely on fishing and would benefit from a free-flowing river.

O'Leary noted the report wasn't designed to capture all of the economic benefits that could come from removing the dams, but that amplifies the need to take a closer look at potential benefits, he said. "One of the ironies of the report is that, in looking at the economic implications of dam removal, very little was written or captured about what would happen down through the Columbia Basin and through Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, despite the fact that this was initiated by the orca task force," he said. "It never dealt with the [economic] value of helping to save orca populations in this effort."

The coalition also sees huge potential for economic benefits from building new carbon-free energy sources to replace energy generated by the dams, O'Leary said. Some of that would likely be developed in the Tri-Cities area, which would also become a major new port for Pacific Northwest crops being transported farther downstream. "Taking a regional viewpoint, in the study that the Northwest Energy Coalition did, they contemplated the notion of wind resources going into Montana and solar into Idaho, which is obviously very important for those regions as well. There is a much greater regional story to be told," he said.

While energy policies and timelines for coal-plant retirements have changed since its report on replacing lower Snake River dam power came out last year, "I don't think there's anything that fundamentally changes the findings of that report," O'Leary said. He noted the dams represent about 1,000 average megawatts of power that would need to be replaced, while closing coal plants in the near future means replacing between 16,000 and 17,000 average megawatts of power over the next decade.

"When you look at it in total, replacing power from the Snake River dams would be a small, incremental bump," he said. "And of all the power that will have to be replaced, that is among the most replaceable because we've already identified how it can be done."

Bogaard said that from Save Our Wild Salmon's perspective, the report undervalues the impacts the loss of salmon runs has had on fishing communities both upstream and downstream from the dams. "I think the report mentions—but I don't think it gives proper emphasis to—the sacrifices that have been made by fishing communities around Columbia and Snake river salmon declines and losses," he said. "I think the report does a much better job highlighting the central role that salmon play with tribal communities—and it should—but I think there's an underappreciation of the impacts on nontribal communities," he said. "There is great urgency to develop a plan and implement it to restore struggling salmon populations that are at some of the lowest returns on record."

The draft report is now open to public comment, which can be submitted before Jan. 24 by mail, email or through an online comment form. Oral public comments will not be taken at workshops, scheduled for Jan. 7 in Clarkston, Jan. 9 in Vancouver and Jan. 13 in the Tri-Cities.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.