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Montanans depend on rivers for recreation, drinking water, and irrigation. We count on them for electricity, too. 

Flathead Electric, a not-for-profit cooperative, buys more than 90% of its wholesale power from the Bonneville Power Administration. Most of that power is hydropower, electricity created from the energy of water. BPA relies on dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to generate hydropower. 

Thanks to hydropower, the greater Northwest leads the nation in clean energy. Hydropower is the backbone of a carbon-free future. It is reliable, affordable, and renewable. It is also an essential partner in the fight against climate change, along with solar and wind power. Hydropower balances the intermittent nature of sun and wind by providing constant electricity for us all. 

Without the hydropower from the dams, Northwest Montana’s electricity is not reliable, not affordable, and not carbon-free. Hydropower from the dams deserves our support. No one wants a dust bowl Montana, a polluted Montana, or a black-ed out Montana. 

Unfortunately, despite its importance, the future of our area’s hydropower is in real jeopardy. Some well-known groups have loudly called for the removal of hydropower dams, like the four lower Snake River dams (LSRD) in Washington.  

Northwest Hydro by the Numbers

14 Million US households powered by Northwest Hydro.
14 Million US households powered by Northwest Hydro
34.4 thousand megawatts of generating capacity
34.4 thousand megawatts of generating capacity
90 percent of the Northwest’s renewable electricity production
90 percent of the Northwest’s renewable electricity production
Zero carbon emissions generated by hydropower
Zero carbon emissions generated by hydropower

Current Political Landscape

At Flathead Electric Cooperative, we urge everyone to support hydropower projects in the Pacific Northwest. Right now, the four lower Snake River dams dominate co-op conversations. Some groups think the dams should be breached. We know that hydro keeps our area’s power carbon-free, affordable, and reliable. We especially believe in the importance of carbon-free hydro to fight climate change to protect salmon, the iconic fish of the Northwest. Flathead Electric Co-op is committed to being part of the solution for science-backed advocacy efforts in support of the lower Snake River dams and salmon, too.

Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River | Bonneville Power Administration
Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River | Bonneville Power Administration

Lower Snake River Dams

What is all this talk in Montana about the four lower Snake River Dams in Washington? We’re glad you asked! Here in northwest Montana, we get about 97% of our electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, and that power is generated by hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin, west of us. The Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. There are four productive hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake, all located in Washington state. All produce affordable, reliable, carbon-free power.

Columbia River Basin
The Columbia River Basin connects a vast geographic area in the northwestern U.S.— these river systems also provide us with the bulk of our electric baseload generation.

Salmon

Recently, some groups have suggested removing the dams on the lower Snake to aid declining salmon populations. We love salmon as a symbol of all things wild and free, we respect their significance to Tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest, and we support re-population efforts on their behalf. Unfortunately, though, removing the dams isn’t the silver bullet for salmon.

A changing planet is the biggest threat to salmon, especially warming ocean temperatures. Did you know that Snake River salmon spend about 80% of their lives in the ocean?They run from their birthplace in the Idaho mountains all the way out to the Pacific Ocean and back again in their quest to reproduce! Yes, they encounter dams along the way. But fish ladder technology and millions of dollars in fisheries research and support have allowed salmon to navigate the dams with success rates very similar to those of salmon in free-flowing rivers.

Unfortunately, many populations of salmon have declined sharply over the last 150 years. Commercial overfishing and habitat loss reduced their numbers to near-extinction levels before the first federal dam on the Columbia River was completed in 1938. There is a ton of research about this iconic fish and the many environmental impacts on them – if you’d like to learn even more about salmon, dams, and more, head over here.

The Bottom Line:

  • Warming, acidfying ocean temperatures pose the greatest threat of extinction to salmon.
  • Hydroelectricity is a critical carbon-free resource to fighting climate change.
  • Billions of dollars have been invested in habitat restoration and dam improvements to protect salmon.
  • The latest fish passage technology at dams has helped Columbia and Snake River salmon survive at rates comparable to a free-flowing river.
  • Significant increases in returning adult salmon numbers have occurred since the dams were first constructed.
  • Salmon populations have been declining for the last 150 years.
  • Hydroelectric dams are an easy target, but rivers without dams are seeing the same salmon declines.
  • The latest science points to warming oceans and a shift in predator/prey relationships as the real driver in these declines.
  • Major upgrades to the lower Columbia and Snake river dams have led to a survival rate past each dam of 93% to 99%, depending on the fish species.
  • Dams help reduce carbon emissions and reservoirs keep river temperatures lower – both of which benefit salmon.
Lower Monumental Dam: Generating Capacity 810 Megawatts, Lower Granite Dam: Generating Capacity 810 Megawatts, Ice Harbor Dam: Generating Capacity 603 Megawatts, Little Goose Dam: Generating Capacity: 810 Megawatts.
The proposed breaching of these four Snake River dams would eliminate a total generating capacity of 3,033 Megawatts of carbon-free, renewable energy. Source: Bonneville Power Administration

Washington State: the Murray-Inslee Process

Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Washington Senator Patty Murray are currently examining what would happen if the four productive, carbon-free lower Snake River dams were breached. The Murray-Inslee Process is slated for October 2021-July 2022. Inslee-Murray concerns include fighting the climate crisis and recovering healthy salmon populations for Tribal Nations.

In considering the Murray-Inslee Process, it’s critical to understand that in 2020 the federal government completed a $40 million, multi-year Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in consultation with states and Tribal entities. Over 59,000 public comments were also received. The EIS conclusion was that breaching the dams is not in the best interest of society from a climate, cost, and grid reliability perspective, especially given the highly uncertain benefits for salmon.

Governor Inslee hasn’t stated publicly if he believes that the dams should be removed. He has noted the extreme danger that the warming, acidifying ocean represents to salmon populations and has also stressed the need to fight climate change to reverse the warming ocean. These positions are strangely at odds with his willingness to examine breaching the dams. Helping salmon means committing to a carbon-free future to fight climate change. Hydropower is the backbone of a carbon-free future, and the lower Snake River dams are a big part of that future.

Flathead Electric Co-op urges its members to reach out to Governor Inslee and Senator Murray in support of the lower Snake River dams. info@lsrdoptions.org

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