Columbia Rural Electric Association (REA) relies on hydropower from our local rivers for 84 percent of the wholesale electricity that we provide to you, our members. However, this affordable, renewable, carbon-free resource is under assault. The lower Snake River dams, in particular, are being targeted by dam-breaching advocates who claim their removal would promote salmon recovery.
The data, however, paints a different picture. Working with regional salmon experts, federal agencies have developed the most advanced fish passage systems in the world. These measures, financed by consumers—including you, through your electric rates—have helped fish meet survival targets.
Return rates for salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers are similar or even better than return rates on some undammed rivers. Salmon spend about 80% of their lives in the ocean. Recent peer-reviewed research has consistently pointed to warming, acidifying oceans as a major factor in their overall survival. During periods of improved ocean conditions, salmon returns on the Columbia and Snake rivers are strong. This year, for example, about 600,000 sockeye salmon have passed Bonneville Dam. This is double the 10-year average. Snake River sockeye are returning in above-average numbers this year, and predictions for fall chinook and coho are similarly strong. The investments we’ve made in fish passage are working.
Dam removal also creates significant risk of power shortages. The 2020 Columbia River System Operation’s final environmental impact statement concluded the dam breaching alternative would more than double the region’s risk of power shortages. This risk is greatest during extreme weather events, such as the June 2021 “heat dome,” which resulted in record-setting temperatures across the region. In fact, Columbia REA was among the small number of utilities that got a call from the Bonneville Power Administration last year asking how much of our electricity load we could shed and how quickly we could do it in the event of a system-overload crash at Bonneville Power. During that event, the lower Snake River dams provided more than 1,000 megawatts of critical electrical generation capability that allowed BPA’s grid operators to avoid the risk of brownouts or blackouts. By comparison, our average use for all co-op members is about 47 megawatts, and our peak is about 122.
I cannot imagine the risk to our members from not having electricity during a heat wave or deep freeze, not to mention the risk of economic losses that would occur if a power shortage caused a blackout during harvest. Dam removal also would mean increased costs for you. Energy+Environmental Economics determined removal would add $100 to $230 per household per year to your electric bills in the best-case scenarios, where emerging technologies are identified to fill the gaps. Absent that innovation, removal would be even more costly and could increase your electric bill by 50% or more.
With inflation causing increasing economic pressure on us all—and clear evidence that fish and dams can coexist—I truly believe keeping our affordable, renewable, reliable hydropower system is the right choice for our region.