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Drowning in water issues

Convention breakout session puts Snake River dams, other water concerns in spotlight

January 2018
By Trista Crossley


While breakout sessions at the annual grain growers convention cover a myriad of topics, farmers can usually count on at least one session being focused on water. This year, the 2017 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in November put the Snake River dams at the center of that current.

Todd Myers, director for the Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment, gave a breakout session titled, “Dams and Wells: The Future of Water and Farmers.” As Myers said, breaching the Snake River dams is a topic that never goes away. A 2016 federal court ruling directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to look at scenarios to protect salmon and steelhead, including tearing down four dams on the lower Snake River, despite the fact that fish counts are slowly increasing.

While some irrigation and flood control is provided by the dams, they are used mostly for navigation and to generate electricity. Myers said that most parties recognize there are economic problems involved in tearing down the dams.

“But what they don’t admit is that there are environmental trade-offs,” he said, adding that the Snake River dams provide about 8 percent of Washington state’s electricity. “To put that in context, if you tore down every wind turbine and removed every solar panel in the state, that would be about the same amount (of dam-produced energy)…that’s what they are talking about in terms of the Snake River dams, in terms of carbon-free, renewable energy.”

The dams provide:

• A source of low-cost energy, about 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour. The nationwide average for industrial users is 6.42 cents per kilowatt hour; and
• An average annual value of electricity worth almost $300 million.

Many in the environmental community point to wind power as a viable replacement for the electricity that would be lost if the dams were taken out. Not so fast, Myers said.

“Wind energy relies on those dams being there in Washington state. If you tear down the dams, you have to find something else to back up the wind. What people don’t realize is that the wind doesn’t blow during the day. It blows at night. Problem with that is no one uses electricity in the middle of the night. We are all asleep, and factories are largely shut down. The peak is in the middle of the day,” he said. The dams act as large batteries that can be turned on or off very quickly to generate electricity when needed.

To replace the electricity generated by the dams, Myers said it would cost:

• $162 million more per year for wind electricity; and
• $152 million more per year for natural gas electricity.

There are also carbon costs to replacing the dams’ electricity:

• It would cost $55 million to reduce the CO2 from natural gas; and
• It would cost $21 million to reduce the CO2 from wind.

In all it would cost about $200 million per year in lost electricity and increased carbon emissions for zero climate benefit, Myers said. “You would have no more electricity, and you’d have the same amount of carbon reduction for $200 million a year.”

The value in other areas from tearing down the dams, such as in recreation and fishing, is unknown. Myers estimated that the salmon population would probably see only a single-digit increase, thanks to the steps the Corps has already taken. He pointed to the Elwha Dam on the edge of the Olympic National Park that was torn down in 2014. The area saw a huge spike in the number of visitors immediately after the dam was torn down, but a month later, the numbers were back to the predam removal level.

“Each time you look at this sort of argument, about recreation making up for the loss of natural resources jobs, it never works out,” Myers said. “It’s folks in Seattle. That’s their relationship with the environment—recreation, not actually working in it.”

Myers told the crowd legislators need to hear from people in Eastern Washington so they understand the impact that tearing down the dams would have.

“In the discussion, it can’t be just Seattle restaurant owners and owners of recreational clothing companies. It has to be the people who live out here.”

Myers also touched on the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision that restricts permit-exempt wells. He said the ruling came in response to a lawsuit alleging wells were reducing the amount of water in streams, thereby increasing the water temperature and making them uninhabitable to fish. In order to use a new well, property owners must undergo an extensive and very costly analysis to prove that the water they want to use won’t impact nearby waterways or senior water right holders. The Building Industry Association of Washington has estimated a loss of $37 billion in property values due to the Hirst ruling. The amount of total water covered by the ruling is less than 1 percent, Myers said, and only a fraction of that water ends up back in streams.

“You have to make sure that water withdrawals from wells aren’t affecting fish,” he explained. “This is essentially an impossible rule to follow because it is very difficult to say how water from here might affect what goes through and ends up over here and its impact on the temperature.”