When Hydropower is Unsustainable

DamNation: The Problem with Hydropower

Directed by Ben Knight (2014)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the growing US dam removal initiative At the time of filming, the US had 75,000 dams over three feet high. There is growing consensus that dams built (especially those on the Colorado River) to supply water to desert farms and cities in Southern California  were misguided and unsustainable.

America’s 75,000 dams have caused untold damage to US fish population that return upstream to spawn.  Despite spending billions of dollars on fish hatcheries and fish ladders, current US salmon and trout populations are less than 9% of their pre-dam numbers. The film depicts images of salmon trying to leap up 12 foot dam walls to reach the upstream shallows where they hatched.

It would be Nixon, with his 1973 Endangered Species Act, who provided the greatest boon to migrating salmon. The Act holds dam operators responsible when a fish species becomes endangered. The Edwards Dam on Maine’s Keanebeck River was the first major dam to be removed (in 1999). This saved taxpayers several millions of dollars annually on (largely unsuccessful) endangered fish mitigation schemes. Thus far the Elwha River Dam on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State was the largest dam to be removed (in 2011).

The segment of the film I like most concerns the ongoing campaign of US Army Corps whistleblower Jim Waddell. It was Waddell who first brought to light a $35 million Army Corps feasibility study that recommended “breaching” all four dams on Washington State’s Snake River.

The Army Corps, which owns the dam, spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on failed salmon mitigation to sell power at a loss (due to competition with local wind and solar power). Even more distressed than endangered Snake River salmon, are starving Puget Sound Orca whales who feed on them. The latter are literally on the verge of extinction. See Orcas Extinction Via Bureaucratic Bungling and Stupidity.

Please support the bill Representative Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has introduced to breach the three Lower Snake River dams. (See GOP Congressman Proposes Snake River Dam Removal).

Saving Orca Whales: Extinction Via Bureaucratic Bungling and Stupidity

The following are two jaw dropping presentations by former Army Corps Engineer Jim Waddell. Prior to his retirement, Waddell assisted in preparing a seven-year $30 million  Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on four Snake River* dams that prevent salmon from returning upriver to breed. Released in 2002, the EIS explores a number of potential options for preventing impending salmon extinctions. Predictably the Army Corps rejected the cheapest and most effective, namely incrementally “breaching”** the four dams

The lower Snake River dams became operational between 1961 and 1975, with the goal of providing hydropower for Bonneville Power Administration.*** Ironically BPA has always produced a surplus of electricity, which until a decade ago they sold to California. With California’s big uptake of solar and wind generation, they no longer buy power from BPA. This means the dams operate at a loss to taxpayers.

On top of growing maintenance costs, the Army Corps of Engineers and BPA have spent $1 billion over the last 15 years on fish hatcheries and salmon recovery schemes that have done nothing to increase the salmon population.

Impending Orca Whale Extinction

Because declining Chinook salmon are their sole source of food, the resident Southern Orca population also began to crash in the early 1990s. Orca calves essentially starve to death before they can reach maturity. The current population has been steady at 75 since the species was first declared endangered in 2002.

Orca biologists estimate the whales need 580,000 Chinook salmon a year to breed successfully. At present, the Snake River is only returning 40,000 per year to the ocean.

December 1 Deadline to Breach Two Dams

When the first video was made two years ago, Waddell was stressing an the urgent need to breach the first dam by October 2016 – with a plan to breach the other three in successive years. Owing to the deteriorating condition of the 20 breeding Orcas, he now maintains the two lowest damns must be breached by December 1, 2018. He estimates this would return 1-3 million Chinook to the ocean after 8-12 months.

The entire cost of the operation would be funded by the Army Corps of Engineers and BPA – in lieu of costly dam maintenance and costly and ineffective salmon recovery schemes – at great savings to taxpayers.

Although maintaining the four dams is extremely wasteful to taxpayers and of no real economic benefit to business or farming interests, dam breaching is being blocked by a handful of professional lobbyists and bureaucrats in Washington governor Jay Inslee’s office and Washington senator Patty Murray’s office.

You can sign a petition supporting the urgent dam breaches at Time is Running Out

*The Snake River is a major river of the greater Pacific Northwest and the largest tributary of the Columbia River.

**In the first video, Waddell explains the difference between “breaching” and “removing” a dam. The latter is prohibitively expensive. In contrast, breaching only requires two bulldozers to dig a notch in the earthen berm to one side of the dam. This allows the river to flow around the dam.

***The Bonneville Power Administration is a US federal agency operating in the Pacific Northwest charged with marketing power produced by the Snake River dams and constructing facilities necessary to transmit that power.


The second video is an August 14, 2018 update on the Snake River dam controversy.