Columbia River Gorge

Columbia River Gorge.

Affirming the draft version, federal agencies rejected breaching the four lower Snake River dams in the final EIS for Columbia River System Operations, released July 31.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and BPA also offered the same Preferred Alternative in the FEIS, attempting to balance fish benefits and energy goals by spilling more water in the spring to help juvenile fish make a safer and faster journey to the ocean.

As an appendix to the FEIS, the National Marine Fisheries Service also released its biological opinion, which finds the Preferred Alternative for operating 14 hydroelectric projects on the Snake and Columbia rivers is not likely to jeopardize the 13 threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead in the basin.

The agencies worked with the public, more than 30 tribes, and state, federal and county agencies to develop the EIS. After releasing a draft document in February, they hosted six public meetings by phone, and received almost 59,000 comment letters on the draft EIS. They expect to release a Record of Decision in September.

Environmental groups reacted with strong disappointment to the final EIS, since the analysis found that dam breaching offers the largest benefits for several ESA-listed salmonids, but would not meet the agencies' objectives for power supply, greenhouse gas emissions or water supply.

"New congressional authority and associated appropriations would be required to implement the dam breaching measures evaluated in the EIS," the agencies said in the document's executive summary. Hydropower advocates said they're pleased by the balanced approach to the final EIS, which retains the emissions-free energy generated by the four Snake River dams while still providing significant benefits for salmon and steelhead.

Although reaching the same conclusions as in the draft, the FEIS executive summary noted that the final version is not a carbon copy of the draft. It includes responses to substantive comments on the draft, and documents minor corrections and additions identified by commenters, expert reviewers and agencies.

One striking change in the document's executive summary is a nod toward finding a new solution for struggling salmon returns and the issue over Snake River dams.

"The co-lead agencies support the idea of a regional forum focused on rebuilding salmon and steelhead runs and are hopeful that this EIS will provide a useful foundation of information as we work together on a shared vision for abundant salmon and steelhead and a clean, reliable, and affordable energy future for the Northwest," the FEIS said. "The intent of the Preferred Alternative is to provide substantial benefits for salmon and steelhead while still meeting the co-lead agencies' purpose and need of this EIS. While the Preferred Alternative is predicted to have a notably higher potential benefit for Snake River salmon and steelhead than the No Action Alternative, NOAA's climate change analysis in the 2020 CRS Biological Opinion (NOAA 2020) reminds us that no one action in isolation can achieve the broader goal of recovery."

Corrections also were made to the draft document in the FEIS. One of those is an accounting of power generation lost by increased spill in the Preferred Alternative. The FEIS said that, compared to the No Action Alternative, hydropower generation would decrease by 210 aMW in an average water year and by 330 aMW in a low water year, largely due to increased spring spill. The draft EIS had estimated a loss of 160 aMW in an average water year and 300 aMW in a low water year.

Because of the reduction in hydropower generation, greenhouse gases would likely increase by an estimated 0.54 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, or 1.5 percent, the FEIS said. The draft EIS estimated carbon emissions would increase by 0.26 MMT annually, or 0.7 percent.

Both the draft and final EIS say the lost power generation places additional rate pressure of 2.7 percent compared to the No Action Alternative.

In an email to Water Power West, BPA spokesman Doug Johnson explained the change, "We recalibrated the model for the Final EIS in response to comments to adjust for new information. This is a good example of the EIS process at work."

The FEIS also reduced the amount of replacement resources used for the dam breaching alternative, in response to public input, incorporating updated costs for replacement resources from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's draft 8th Power Plan. And it more thoroughly describes the process for identifying potential replacement resource portfolios.

Johnson said an increase in rate pressure means if BPA can't offset the additional costs with new revenue or by cutting costs, rates could rise.

Under the dam breaching alternative in the FEIS, replacing power with a conventional, least-cost portfolio is expected to cost about $250 million a year, increase upward rate pressure by between 8.2 and 9.6 percent, and lead to a 9 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions, or an additional 3.3 MMT. Under a renewables portfolio, it would cost an estimated $406 million per year, increase rates by between 9.8 and 20.6 percent, and increase GHG emissions by 3.5 percent, or 1.3 MMT annually, the executive summary states. The estimated cost for replacing Snake River dam power under a clean energy portfolio in the draft EIS was $419 million per year, which would increase upward rate pressure by between 9.5 percent and 19.3 percent.

The FEIS also provides more information on the perspectives from Native American tribes impacted by the dams.

"The treaty tribes in the lower Columbia have treaty-guaranteed rights to take salmon at their usual and accustomed areas. They see the diminution of salmonids from historic yearly runs of up to 16 million to today's average run size of 2 million fish as a violation of their treaty rights," the executive summary said.

It noted upper Columbia River tribes strongly advocated including salmon passage and reintroduction above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

The final document also includes comments from the public, organizations and states, and responses to them.

Many groups were still reviewing the final document on July 31, but several offered initial reaction.

Conservation groups say the Preferred Alternative does not do nearly enough to prevent salmon extinction on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and will end up back in court.

"The Trump administration's plan is a failure for Northwest salmon, tribes, fishing businesses and orcas. Like past plans, it will not recover abundant salmon runs or comply with the Endangered Species Act," said a statement from Columbia Riverkeeper.

A prepared statement from Giulia Good Stefani, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "The Trump administration's latest plan is as likely to save endangered salmon or orcas from extinction as a glass of water is to stop a house fire."

Northwest RiverPartners, meanwhile, said the Preferred Alternative offered the best option for fulfilling multiple objectives of improving salmon survival, providing reliable energy and reaching the Northwest's clean energy future by maintaining the four lower Snake River dams 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," RiverPartners said. "We welcome the findings presented in the FEIS and the Biological Opinion. We have always believed that salmon and dams can coexist."

While expressing disappointment, a statement from Save Our Wild Salmon concluded, "Despite serious shortcomings, we expect that the FEIS will contain some valuable information that can help inform regional discussions now underway and support the development of legally valid, scientifically credible and fiscally responsible strategy that restores imperiled salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia-Snake Basin, supports vibrant fishing and farming communities and sustains a reliable and affordable energy system across the Pacific Northwest."

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.