Guest Column

Let’s Look at the Facts

Your local electric co-op encourages you to learn more about the lower Snake River dams, and welcomes the opportunity to continue this important discussion

By Mark Johnson and Local Chambers of Commerce

Your local electrical cooperative and your chambers of commerce aren’t used to being accused of “irresponsible fear-mongering,” as portrayed in a recent Flathead Beacon guest column. Ouch. The column writer asked readers to look at facts, not fear, when examining salmon and the lower Snake River Dams (LSRD). Your co-op and chambers couldn’t agree more, and we welcome the opportunity to continue this important discussion.

At your member-owned, not-for-profit Co-op, we exist simply to serve our members – not to scare them. That said, sometimes facts are scary. If the LSRD hadn’t been available in January 2021 when the Chief Joseph Dam went down unexpectedly during a long winter storm, we most likely would have experienced a blackout in the Flathead Valley. It is not a scare tactic to point out dangers, and it is the job of utilities to raise an alarm if grid reliability is threatened, particularly for our many members who rely solely on electricity for heat and do not have the luxury of a backup heat source.

In turn, it’s the Chamber’s job to safeguard, stimulate, and drive local economic prosperity – which is hard to do without reliable, affordable electricity. With inflation at all-time highs, affordability is crucial for our local businesses and residents that are currently struggling with significant cost increases. As we deal with unprecedented growth in our area, it’s vital to maintain our access to clean, reliable power.

Let’s look at the facts about salmon and the lower Snake River dams:

• Annually, the LSRD produce over 1,000 megawatts of reliable, carbon-free energy, with the capacity to generate over 3,000 megawatts. That’s about 12% (not 4%) of the average energy production of the entire Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS). 

• The LSRD have been continuously maintained and upgraded. As a result, they are among the least expensive dams in the FCRPS to operate.

• Rather than being outdated, the LSRD incorporate some of the most advanced fish passage systems in the world. Success rates are about 96%, making salmon passage through the LSRD about the same as fish passage measured on undammed rivers. These passages were developed in consultation with regional salmon experts representing tribal, state, and federal agencies.

• Overall, there is a lack of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to clearly identify the LSRD as the limiting factor for salmon recovery. Nearly all rivers along the entire North Pacific Coast—including undammed rivers —are experiencing similar or worse trends in salmon returns when compared to the Columbia and Snake rivers.

• Recent peer-reviewed research consistently points to warming, acidifying oceans as the major problem for salmon, which spend about 80% of their lives in the ocean. Removing carbon-free generation sources is a step in the wrong direction for salmon. 

• The LSRD are critical to our carbon-free future, producing power even when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining. The more coal and natural gas units are retired, the more important those dams become. Although battery technology is rapidly advancing, we are simply not there yet, and even when we get there, industry experts predict that it will take a combination of utility-scale batteries and hydropower to keep our grid reliable as we add intermittent renewables like solar and wind power to our grid.

• Currently, the largest planned battery in the Northwest will be able to release 30 megawatts of electricity for four consecutive hours. A battery that size represents an exciting development for our region. However, in comparison, the lower Snake River dams can generate up to 2,650 megawatts over a period of 10 hours per day for 5 consecutive days.

When you know better, do better, the saying goes. We know a lot more about salmon than we did when the dams first went in, and science is allowing us – and more importantly, fish – to do better. The problems once caused by the dams are being remedied, as set forth in the 2020 Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Study (CRSO EIS), the federal study that concluded that dam breaching is not in the best interest of our region from a cost, climate, or power reliability perspective – especially given the highly uncertain benefits to salmon. We cannot ignore nor politicize the multi-year, multi-million-dollar study that was developed by scientists, engineers, and hydropower professionals across multiple tribal, state, and federal agencies.

We encourage you to learn more about the lower Snake River dams. Getting accurate answers to questions can be a challenge, especially given the many privately funded, nonscientific studies published by well-meaning groups that fail to fully capture the issues. We’ve gathered peer-reviewed research and more at flatheadelectric.com/helphydro for those interested in learning more. 

Mark Johnson, General Manager, Flathead Electric Cooperative; Lorraine Clarno, President and CEO, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce; Erica Wirtala, Board Chair, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce; Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

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