Leave it to National Geographic to bring the world's attention to the Lower Snake River dams and slice to the heart of the issue with the interactive web forum.
"Columbia River: Forever Dammed?" has flared the emotions of many who wish to protect the region's dams and brought criticism that the article was slanted and poorly researched. Having made an award-winning documentary film related to this issue, I can unequivocally state that the article was expertly researched and fairly presented.
Unfortunately, in discussing the entire Columbia River basin, the article tends to group all the region's dams together as one system. It seems that readers are left hanging with the question "are dams good or are dams bad?" I would rather pose the question, "can we remove a few marginal dams and retain the benefits of the whole dam system?"
The Lower Snake River dams do not provide the same scale of benefits that the Columbia River dams provide yet have substantial detriments. Below is a discussion demonstrating how the benefits will still be provided once these four dams and reservoirs are removed.
As it turns out, the benefits that the Lower Snake River dams provide can still be provided without the dams actually in place. The greatest fear of the "Save Our Dams" coalition is that restoring Idaho's salmon runs by removing these four dams will set a precedent that threatens the Columbia River dams on which they are truly trying to defend.
- 4 Lower Snake River Dams
A five-year, $20 million federal study has recently concluded that the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams offers Idahoís wild Salmon and Steelhead the greatest hope of avoiding extinction. These four dams produce four percent of the regionís electricity and allow commodity shipping from the landlocked state of Idaho. Water is pumped (400 vertical feet average) from the Ice Harbor reservoir to irrigate 37,000 acres, nearly a quarter of which is Poplar and Cottonwood trees grown for paper production. These dams were not designed to provide flood control, always operating within a few feet of full to maximize power production.
The Ice Harbor dam, the lowest of the four Lower Snake River dams, saves thirteen irrigators about a fifth of their annual pumping cost ($2.5 million total in 1991). A thirty-mile pipeline along the reservoir's current shoreline could provide the same benefit without the dam in place.
Before the Lower Snake River dams were completed in 1975, trains moved grain and other commodities that are currently shipped by barge. Some goods still travel the rail line that parallels the Lower Snake River but much track has been abandoned, unable to compete with the federal tax-sponsored "navigation costs" of the riverway. Barge operators on the Snake River do not pay for operation and maintenance of the locks or for dredging of the river "channel". If this subsidy were removed, all commodities would again move by rail. Some have suggested that this subsidy could become a rebate to the region's wheat growers, perhaps more evenly distributed rather than just benefiting those nearest to the Snake River barge transportation.
New power plants currently under construction will be bringing 12,700 megawatts of electricity on-line by December 2002. Most of these new power plants are basically jet engines modified to burn natural gas. The 1150 megawatts of electricity from the four Lower Snake River dams could be replaced with natural gas turbines equivalent to those that would power six Boeing 747 jets.
Unlike the dams which produce power mostly during spring snowmelt and autumn rains, natural gas turbines can produce electricity when the power is needed rather than when it is available. Furthermore, natural gas turbines could be installed near electric load alleviating transmission bottlenecks and the pressure to build more transmission lines. It is also interesting to note that the energy lost as heat from electrical resistance in the transmission grid is an amount comparable to the total production of the four lower Snake River dams.
For many, an even better solution would be to make more efficient use of available electricity. A short list of the many conservation examples would include: light switches with timers, compact-fluorescent bulbs, improving insulation and weather stripping, using heat pumps, more efficient air-conditioners and other appliances with the Energy Star rating.
Thanks again for the fine article.
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