Washington’s Best-Kept Renewable Secret: Hydropower

Without its dams, Washington’s ambitious climate goals would be hopelessly out of reach.

Sponsored by Northwest RiverPartners

Washington state is a national leader in making strides to shrink its carbon footprint. The latest proposal – possibly on voters’ ballots this fall – would charge businesses a “pollution fee” of $15 for each metric ton of carbon emissions they produce.

These and similar carbon-cutting efforts get the headlines, but their impact is minimal compared to the Northwest’s single-largest source of carbon-free energy: Hydropower. Many Washingtonians are stunned to learn their electric power supply is already 75 percent carbon-free, in large part due to the region’s system of federal hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Without these dams, Washington’s ambitious climate goals – like reducing carbon levels 36 percent below 2005 levels by 2035 – would be hopelessly out of reach.

Yet chances are, if you’ve heard about hydro lately, it’s been in a negative way.  A handful of groups are using oversimplified, emotion-based appeals to dismiss hydro’s vital role in addressing climate change. They point to the dams as solely responsible for the myriad challenges facing Northwest salmon and orcas in Puget Sound. Their ongoing campaign for removal of the Lower Snake River dams in southeast Washington is a case in point.

It’s time that Washingtonians have access to all the facts about these hardworking dams, which are vital pieces of the Northwest’s larger, interconnected federal hydrosystem. Your state economy runs on the low-cost, reliable hydropower this system provides. And Washington, whose carbon footprint is already half that of other areas of the country, can’t reach an even lower-carbon future without its dams.

Good dams, bad dams: Removing some dams, like the ones torn down on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, made sense. They provided minimal power generation and few economic benefits. In contrast, the four Snake dams produce enough energy to power a city the size of Seattle every year. They are pivotal parts of a regional system of hydropower dams that provide multiple benefits. This system keeps the Western energy grid stable, Northwest skies clean, and energy costs low, attracting companies as large as Amazon and Boeing and as small as your local coffee shop and enabling them to grow.

Hydro works hard: The federal dams, in addition to generating power, have a series of locks that are key to Washington’s export trade, providing vital navigation for barges through the Columbia-Snake river system, a 465-mile river highway connecting farmers and businesses to markets across the region and the world. Ten percent – or 4.2 million tons – of all Northwest exports pass through the four Snake dams by barge each year. This “river of commerce” moves grain, fertilizers, potatoes, wood products and other commodities faster than by train or truck – and with far less fuel and carbon emissions.

Orcas are a red herring: Advocates for the orcas who summer in Puget Sound have irrationally pinned the blame for the killer whales’ struggles on the Snake dams – located nearly a thousand miles away in the state’s opposite corner. Yet the orcas feed on many salmon stocks, not just those affected by the Snake dams. And they face much closer-by threats in their home waters, from boat traffic and noise, pollution, sea lions, and declining numbers of Puget Sound Chinook.

Wind and solar can’t do it alone: Anti-hydro activists claim that Washington no longer needs the Snake dams because other renewables or energy conservation can replace the power that they generate. But when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, the dams are what keep the lights on in the Northwest. All of the federal dams, including those on the Snake River, work together to provide a constant, reliable supply of hydropower to back up intermittent renewables like wind and solar. No matter the weather, hydropower is always available at the flick of a switch.

You can’t fool the public: While the most extreme voices tend to dominate public discourse, independent public opinion polling shows that a majority (66 percent) of Washington residents support the dams, according to a poll by Portland-based DHM Research and commissioned by Northwest RiverPartners. Fully 62 percent find removing the Snake dams an “extreme solution.” And when asked by DHM if they would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supports dam removal, 64 percent said they would be less supportive.

Dams and salmon are co-existing: We don’t have to choose between preserving an iconic species and protecting a power system that simultaneously keeps the Northwest’s carbon footprint small, helps businesses and farmers thrive, and keeps energy costs low. Washington businesses and families, in fact, are among salmon’s biggest supporters – providing, along with other Northwest utility ratepayers, more than $16 billion for fish recovery efforts since the late 1970s, through charges on their electric bills.

Fortunately, these investments are paying off. Young salmon headed downstream are surviving at 97 percent on average at the dams – rates that are similar to those for fish in undammed rivers. These high survival rates are primarily due to the installation of fish slides, which get salmon safely and smoothly over the dams. Efforts to restore degraded habitat and remove culverts and other obstacles are also helping ensure that returning adult salmon have suitable spawning grounds and nurseries for producing the next generation.

As important as salmon are, so is reducing carbon emissions in a manner that keeps the Washington economy humming and our environment clean. Amid all the discussion of pollution fees, carbon taxes, cap and trade and other strategies for creating a lower-carbon future, it’s imperative to remember: Hydropower’s value to the Northwest outweighs them all.

About the author:

Terry Flores is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a nonprofit alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana.  For more information about hydropower in the Northwest, visit nwriverpartners.org

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