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We can balance hydropower and salmon by removing obsolete dams

by Peter Saunders
| December 17, 2023 12:00 AM

As a proud member of the Flathead Electric Cooperative, I feel the one-sided and misleading letter Dec. 2 from Gary Weins needs to be corrected.   

Not only is it possible to save Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead from extinction while maintaining reliable power, it’s imperative we do so.

Western Montana electric users (including the excellent Flathead Electric Cooperative) have enjoyed inexpensive and reliable electricity for over 50 years from the Columbia Basin network of dozens of federally subsidized dams. These include the four Snake River dams that are being questioned today. 

But these benefits have come with a very heavy cost to traditional native American inhabitants along the Snake, and the near extinction of salmon and steelhead. 

We can have both hydropower and robust salmon runs,  but need to totally rethink the four dams on the Snake. They are aged, obsolete and their costs exceed their benefits.

Despite millions of dollars spent per year on salmon rehabilitation efforts, such as hatcheries, fish ladders, and trucking smolt past dams, Snake River salmon and steelhead are barely returning at 5-10% of goals, and have been for decades. These dams have crushed salmon and steelhead runs and all efforts at a work- around have failed. The dams have turned what was once a fast-flowing cold-water river into a slow-moving series of warming ponds. Possibly Mr. Wiens does not care about driving species to extinction, but most Americans do.

Decades of scientific analysis has all reached the same conclusion — lower Snake River dam removal is our best chance to recover healthy and abundant Snake River salmon and steelhead populations by unlocking hundreds of miles of prime spawning streams in Idaho.

The Native American tribes along the Snake had their primary food source and their cultural identity stripped away by the dam construction. The United States signed treaties promising a future with fish.. Mr. Wiens’ silence on this issue speaks volumes.

Salmon have fed people and created wealth for thousands of years, and could continue to do so. Dams, on the other hand, have a finite lifespan. A comprehensive solution that moves everyone forward together, with federal resources supporting it, is both a necessity and opportunity for our region’s peoples, lands, and natural resources. 

Wiens’ false assertion that the proposed federal agreement was negotiated in secret, is disingenuous. This short-term agreement to pause the litigation, so stakeholders can reach a solution, and not have one imposed by the court. This lawsuit has been going on for 20 years. As with all agreements to settle a lawsuit, only the parties to the lawsuit are involved.   

Outside of the current mediation, broad, multi-stakeholder efforts have been underway in the region for years, with bipartisan support of our region’s elected leaders.  

This issue of the lower Snake River has seen more public and stakeholder engagement than any other issue before in the Northwest. 

Regardless of what is in an official announcement on the litigation, we must continue to lead and support the largest salmon and river restoration in history to create a more resilient and just Northwest future. 

The approach from engaged policymakers has been clear — we can and must replace the services the dams provide with clean, reliable, and affordable alternatives before the dams can be removed. 

We must continue to advocate for a comprehensive solution for Columbia and Snake River Basin salmon restoration. We should seize this opportunity and work together to create a more resilient and just Northwest future. 

Mr. Wiens’s essay is simple fear mongering. Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson is leading the charge to replace the Snake River dams aging power production with additional (more than is currently available) power supply, not just for Montana, but Idaho, Washington and Oregon. The new power production will offer Western Montana more power options, not less, honor our treaty obligations, help a priceless species recover from near extinction.

Mr. Wiens and the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association can both do better.

Peter Saunders lives in Kalispell.