Rethink Dams! Petitions for Breach of Snake River Dams

Kate Grumbles

Rethink Dams!, a Whitman club led by Fiona Bennitt, sent a petition to Governor Inslee last week calling for the breaching of the lower four Snake River Dams.

The dams were created in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the federal government, but many are concerned about the danger they pose to the species of wild salmon living in the Snake. The dams also cost millions of dollars to operate each year. “Breaching” the dams involves breaking through the dam structure and opening up the bottom layer, for people and fish to be able to pass through. It is a cheaper alternative to removing the entire dam, and it provides a similar effect for the river ecosystem. The breaching of the dams has already been authorized by an Environmental Impact Study from the Engineers Army Corps completed in 2002, but hasn’t been put into effect.

Bennitt and another member of Rethink Dams!, Grace Little, wrote the petition to call for the breaching last May to send to Washington State Senator Patty Murray. It was rewritten recently to deliver to Governor Inslee this week at the Bill Grant Legacy Dinner, a dinner hosted by the Walla Walla County Democrats. While Bennitt and Little were unsuccessful in delivering it to Inslee at the dinner, they plan to mail it to him later this week.

Rethink Dams! sent the petition to Governor Inslee this past week with signatures from Whitman students, hoping to show the broad support Whitman has for breaching the dams.

Bennitt spoke about the effect she hopes the petition has on the governor.

“We would like Governor Inslee to step up as a political leader in the Pacific Northwest  and tell either the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Jo-Ellen Darcy or President Obama himself to order the breaching of the lower four Snake River Dams starting immediately,” Bennitt said.

Many people are concerned that breaching the dams would cause an irreplaceable loss in a source of energy for the Pacific Northwest. In reality, the dams only produce around 5 percent of energy for the area. 

Bob Carson, retired Environmental Studies and Geology Professor at Whitman, spoke to the concerns about the loss in energy once the dams are breached.

“That [energy] could so easily be replaced with conservation. The second easiest way to replace it would be wind and solar, or even geothermal in the cascades.” Carson said.

Jim Waddell, a former Army Corps Engineer in Walla Walla in charge of the environmental study on the dams that took place around 16 years ago, also addressed the idea of replacing the loss with other sources of energy for the Pacific Northwest.

“Wind energy, in addition to conservation … has kept demand down … there’s now 3 or 4 times as much wind energy produced than those Snake River dams produce,” Waddell said. “What that sort of updated data tells us is that the notion that we’re going to lose all this power and we need it is false, we have surplus power.”

Waddell spoke about the effects of leaving the dams intact, despite the biological findings in environmental impact study conducted by the Army Corps sixteen years ago.

“We were doing this $33 million study to determine the feasibility of breaching the dams or overall alternatives to improve juvenile fish passage,” Waddell said. “The fact is, here we are fifteen-sixteen years later, and we’ve spent over $900 million, rapidly approaching $1 billion, and the Corps affected no improvements for survival rates of salmon in the lower Snake River.”

To Bennitt and other community members actively involved in the issue, breaching the dams is the only viable solution to the habitat destruction and myriad environmental problems.

“I think that breaching the lower four snake river dams is the only way to save wild salmon runs here in the Pacific Northwest,” Bennitt said.

Jim Waddell, a former Army Corps Engineer in Walla Walla in charge of the environmental study on the dams that took place around 16 years ago, also thinks that the only solution worth considering is breaching the dams.

“It’s no longer a matter of should we breach … the question is how fast can we get it done now, since we’ve blown 16 years,” Waddell said.