LOWER GRANITE DAM, Wash. — The decadeslong Pacific Northwest salmon war may be nearing the end.
But it’s economics, not fish, that could be the demise of four dams at the center of the fight.
The dams on the Lower Snake River — besieged by conservationists and biologists for killing fish — are now battered by falling prices for renewable energy, skyrocketing replacement costs for aging turbines and a growing tab for environmental mitigation.
“The jig is up,” said Daniel Malarkey, a senior fellow at the Sightline Institute, a regional think tank focused on energy, economic and environmental policy. “We had this super-cheap power relative to other resources, and we’ve piled a bunch of extra costs on it.”
The Lower Snake River dams account for 5% to 13% of the Bonneville Power Administration’s power generation. But due to river flow conditions and endangered species requirements for fish, they produce far less than their capacity — and they are most productive at exactly the wrong time.
When power demand is high, supply from the eastern Washington dams is low. When demand is low, the dams produce too much electricity when combined with BPA’s other generation.
In fact, the Lower Snake River dams produce less power than BPA sends out of its service area in the region.
There are other factors, as well, including BPA’s financial health. The federal power agency is $15 billion in debt, and its electricity rates have climbed 30% since 2008 as the wholesale market has fallen due to growing supplies of wind, solar and natural gas.
Hydropower is no longer the Northwest’s cheapest energy, and if BPA wants to get its books in order, critics say, it should start by removing expensive and possibly money-losing assets like the four Lower Snake River dams from its books.
“They could reduce their surplus and get out from some of those recovery costs by actually recovering the fish,” said Jim Norton of the Idaho Conservation League and Columbia Rediviva project.