New analysis shows lower Snake dams are big losers

Benefits derived from the lower Snake River dams, like commercial transportation, are declining dramatically. Container shipping is all but gone, with little chance of returning. Data source: portoflewiston.com.

For the past two years, IRU has been adjusting the way we approach our work toward restoring salmon and steelhead. For more than 20 years we argued that the best way to restore salmon is to remove the four lower Snake River dams, and that's still true.

However, over two decades of working for salmon recovery we also discovered that the dams don't add up socially or economically, either. The more you look, the more you realize that, collectively, they're a big financial boondoggle that's getting worse year by year. The benefits they provide are shrinking while their costs are mounting.

It's been enlightening to work with engineer Jim Waddell, a former Army Corps of Engineers employee who worked in the Corp’s Walla Walla office on Lower Snake dam issues.

Waddell's expertise and experience have given a solid underpinning to new analysis on the economics of hydropower produced by the dams along with the costs of maintaining and operating a river navigation system that, by the Corps’ own definition, moves an insignificant amount of cargo.

In 2015, Anthony Jones of Rocky Mountain Econometrics produced two reports on the economics of the lower Snake River Dams. The first report examines hydropower generation and the second takes a look at the navigation system.

Now there's a new study from Tacoma-Wash.-based Earth Economics that looks at the overall economics of the dams, including the lost recreational opportunities from maintaining the status quo.

The conclusion of Earth Economics—with input from Waddell—is that for every dollar American taxpayers spend to maintain the dams, 15 cents is returned in benefits. In contrast, Earth Economics estimates that removing the dams would provide a $4 benefit for every $3 invested in the system. 

The solution seems obvious. Remove the dams, taxpayers get relief, and Idaho’s iconic wild salmon and steelhead will rebound. Idahoans and our ecosystem will once again benefit from rivers teeming with fish that once were a rich part of our heritage. 

  • Click here to read a press release about the new cost-benefit data from Earth Economics.