To some, a new report by ECONorthwest demonstrates that if a monetary value is given to restoring the environment, the economic benefits of removing the lower Snake River dams would more than exceed the costs.

To others, the report's "non-use value" of nearly $11 billion used to offset the substantial costs of removing the dams--and the fact that it was arrived at through a survey conducted by Save Our Wild Salmon--represents a fatal flaw in the economic analysis.

Many hydropower proponents said the report only distracts from the upcoming release of a Columbia River Hydro System EIS, which will include a scientific and economic analysis of removing the lower Snake River dams.

The executive director of one group--the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association--said the report demonstrates to him why the region should be pushing for an ESA exemption for the Federal Columbia River Power System.

The report itself notes that discussions and research on removing the four dams have continued for two decades, and that much of the information in that discussion is either outdated or incomplete.

In an email to NW Fishletter, Vulcan, which commissioned the analysis, stated, "The last comprehensive economic evaluation of the Lower Snake River Dams was completed more than sixteen years ago. This report--produced by experts at ECONorthwest--provides a cost/benefit analysis of removing the dams. Our goal in commissioning the report is to inform the public on this important regional issue."

Whether it does that depends on who's reading it.

Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the Northwest Energy Coalition, said the analysis offers a much-needed glimpse of a post-dam world that would bring substantial economic benefits. "We're happy to see another report come out that is pretty comprehensive that basically comes to the same conclusion: Dams can be removed and the power can be replaced, and we'll still come away with a clean and affordable energy system."

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said the economic benefits of removing the dams will go far beyond the handful of counties in central and eastern Washington that the report identifies. He said he hopes findings of the report will add to the discussions now going on in Idaho, Washington and Oregon as well as among federal agencies.

But proponents of hydroelectric power found plenty of reasons to criticize not just the findings, but the analysis itself.

"I'm just really disappointed that the conclusion was based on a study by a biased third party," said Dave Hagen, said general manager of Clearwater Power in Lewiston, Idaho, which relies on power from BPA. "The question they asked was very misleading. This undermines the whole validity of the study ECONorthwest did," he told NW Fishletter.

That question, used to determine the nonuse value, is from a 2018 survey by Save Our Wild Salmon. The telephone survey asked Pacific Northwest residents, "Removing four dams on the lower Snake River would restore wild salmon and improve water quality, but might lead to a slight increase in electricity costs. Would you be willing to pay an additional [blank] on your electric bill in order to ensure that wild salmon would be protected?" That blank ranged from $1 to $7, and included varying degrees of support.

Hagen said he believes the question itself is misleading by stating that removing the dams will restore wild salmon.

Others had the same concern.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said he attended a presentation by ECONorthwest, and is waiting for answers to several assumptions made around power supply and barging and irrigation substitutes.

But his biggest concern is the report's assumption that salmon will be restored if the dams are removed, even though the report itself doesn't come to that conclusion.

"The heart of it--the lion's share of this eight-point-something billion dollar benefit--is based solely on this survey conducted by an anti-dam group," he said.

Miller noted that the survey didn't ask people what things they value in the hydroelectric system, or whether they'd be willing to pay for those values.

Adam Domanski, lead author and project director at ECONorthwest, said the analysis actually looked at three surveys, and used results from the Save Our Wild Salmon survey because it most closely matched the ratepayers that would benefit. Two other surveys had similar results, he said.

Additionally, Domanski said, the benefits assigned were limited to 18 million households in a five-state region. "If we had used one of those other federal studies, our estimate of benefits would have been about six-and-a-half times larger," he said.

While the specific language in the question wasn't perfect, he said, it was the "best representation of what we would expect if we did our own survey."

Domanski added that the analysis offers a "potential" nonuse value which is based on reducing the risk of extinction for salmon.

Save Our Wild Salmon's Bogaard said that the analysis doesn't claim to address the science of dam removal and how it would affect salmon populations. "The science in that regard is pretty strong," he told NW Fishletter. "The impact of the federal hydro system, and especially the Snake River Dams, on salmon mortality is significant and very well established," he said. And while there are other sources of mortality, the hydropower system is the largest human-caused source, he said.

Bogaard added that setting the nonuse value aside, comparing the benefits and costs of removing the dams are "pretty close to even in a conservative reading of the benefits, and I think there's a pretty strong case that there are alternative ways to provide those services that are far more compatible with fish," he said. The report, he said, should be seen as an opportunity for communities to explore those alternatives while reaping the benefits of restoring the lower Snake River.

Miller said nonuse value is a controversial method for economic analyses. He said studies have shown that people overestimate how much they would actually pay, and they quickly overextend themselves. The bigger issue, he said, is the whole premise of the question is that salmon would be restored, yet the report calls that premise into question while basing its conclusion on it.

Miller said he has other serious concerns with the report, including how it determined the value of capacity, and whether it took into consideration the transmission constraints in the region.

He added that, while he believes the report is well-intended, it did not analyze any of the studies that it bases the analysis on, acknowledging that studies are not verified or checked for accuracy or completeness. "I anticipated that this study would actually, really, plow some new ground, and what I saw instead was just accepting studies from what I would deem like-minded groups and packaging it all together with an economics ribbon," he said.

In an email to NW Fishletter, the Public Power Council offered several concerns about the analysis. It said the power benefits of the dams are significantly understated.

"The examination of the power and 'grid services' benefits of the dams are based on outdated and flawed analysis," the group stated. "PCC has pointed out many issues with some of these source studies previously, including that they do not properly assess the capacity, reliability, and carbon-free attributes of the power produced by the Lower Snake River dams. These projects are part of a reliable, clean, and affordable future for the grid and cannot be replaced at low cost by intermittent renewable resources."

It also questioned the nonuse benefits, which it said are based on controversial and "in this instance, unsupportable economic analysis. The study uses a contentious 'stated preference' economic analysis that relies on unscientific public polling instead of solid economics to quantify what people would pay for removing the dams," it said.

The PCC email also said that the report minimizes the greenhouse gas impact of dam removal and does not provide any quantitative estimate of benefits to endangered salmon yet it cites the potential benefits to wild salmon as a central purpose of dam removal.

Meanwhile, Darryll Olsen, board representative of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, told NW Fishletter that he isn't interested in a "tit-for-tat, he-said-she-said debate" about the report.

"The EcoNW report only reinforces CSRIA's statement to the CRSO agencies and key stakeholders that the Draft EIS process will serve only to inflame the dam breaching-reservoir drawdown debate," he wrote in an email. "It is irresponsible for the federal agencies to not invoke, now, the ESA Exemption action, and political malpractice by pro-dam congressional representatives to sit back and wait for the EIS Armageddon to unfold."

On the other side of the debate, Northwest Energy Coalition's O'Leary said he's encouraged to see an economic analysis on the dam removal using nonuse values.

"It's basically the value that people of the Northwest place on restoring salmon populations. We think that's important because a lot of studies--noticeably the work out of the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers--doesn't assign any value to the wishes of the people," he said. "We think it's a real benefit."

O'Leary said from a modeling standpoint, the report used the Coalition's study on dam replacement, but used a different source for where the replaced power would come from. "It simply said if you take the dams away, what are the utilities most likely to do? What is the solution that requires the least amount of changes?" he said. Under that assumption, it analyzed power coming from a California market which would include increases in carbon emissions at rates O'Leary said the Coalition would not find acceptable.

But, he said, coupled with the coalition's study showing renewables could largely step in to replace power from the dams, the costs of added carbon emissions would be overstated, and benefits from a build-out of new renewable energy understated.

"If the scenario we landed upon were to play out, clearly there would be a significant build-out of wind and solar resources, and at least some of that would land in eastern and central Washington, and that would be a substantial economic benefit," he said.

O'Leary added, "This study is really encouraging in that regard. The economy, far from suffering, would if anything do a little better than it is right now."

Hagen--head of the Clearwater Power--isn't convinced. He said it boils down to how removing the dams will affect real people, and real communities. Hagen said he grew up in Lewiston, knew the Snake as a free-flowing river, and was there to witness the Columbia River hydrosystem become the region's economic driver.

The costs of removing those dams will be to BPA customers and the communities that rely on the dams, he said. As for the $8.65 billion in benefits, he said, "Show me the money. I'm not sure where it's going to be coming from."

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.