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Removing dams on the Snake River: The Corps of Engineers and National Policy Decisions

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Some Members of Congress, including Rep. Mike Simpson (ID), have begun pressuring the Biden Administration to include removal of multiple Snake River dams as part of the Administration’s infrastructure proposal. The Army Corps of Engineers operates these dams and this week, an industry reporter reached out to Dawson & Associates for perspective on Corps policies relating to dam removal.

The reporter spoke with Dawson Senior Advisor Col. (ret) John Eisenhauer. John spent more than 20 years in the Army Corps of Engineers and from 2011 to 2013, he was commander of the Corps’ Portland District. This included exposure to Federal water policies relating to the Columbia River System of which the Snake River is part (though his district did not manage those dams). What follows are excerpts from John’s comments during the interview:

Dam removal is a complex issue from a regulatory perspective. The Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and Bureau of Reclamation have already studied removing Snake River dams as part of an Environmental Impact Statement on the Columbia River System Operation. On September 28, 2020, the Department of Energy published the Joint Record of Decision (ROD) which concluded, “[The] Corps’ implementation of the Selected Alternative* [which did not include removal or breaching of the Snake River dams] will not jeopardize listed species or adversely modify or destroy critical habitat. . .” [page 2]

When the Corps prepares an EIS under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), it looks at the issue from a national perspective, while considering impact on local, regional, and national stakeholders, to ensure, in part, that the Selected Alternative is in the public interest. The Corps does so through a careful balancing of all public interest factors relevant to the project. Thus, one specific factor, such as fish and wildlife values or energy needs, cannot by itself force a specific decision. Rather, the Record of Decision reflects the net effect of balancing all public interest factors, which are often in conflict.

As the Corps stated in the ROD, the Selected Alternative “best balances the human and natural environment in a manner [that will] fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”

As an example of the difficulty in balancing public interest, the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation states that wheat “is the No. 1 crop in the Pacific Northwest” and “[a]bout 58 percent of the nation’s wheat destined for export travels by barge through the [Columbia-Snake River] system.” In IFBF’s view, removing dams would make the river system unnavigable for barges that move crops to port for export.

This is often a key difference between how the Corps of Engineers and elected officials approach projects. The Corps must follow federal laws, precedents, and the national public interest while remaining conscious of precedents that its decisions may establish. These precedents may be applied nationally going forward. Elected officials are often focused on their “local” interests with less emphasis on national policies.

A holistic approach is necessary when evaluating projects considering all substantive input and the best science available. This is what the Joint ROD reflects. When I dealt with fisheries issues as Portland District Commander, we often used the construct of the 4 “H”s: hydropower, harvest, habitat, and hatcheries. All four impact Columbia River fisheries. In the recent public discussion, the irony of seeking to breach the lower Snake River dams is that these endangered fish species are still harvested, and the wild population must compete with hatchery fish for limited habitat. From my perspective, any plan that takes drastic measures to address one component of a four-pronged approach while allowing for known take and likely harm in the remaining three seems counterproductive to the species involved and doesn’t reflect a balance.

Breaching dams is a significant action that is very costly to both implement and reverse both in terms of economics and the environment. That said, removing obstructions to fish passage has proven successful in many locations. During my command, we successfully reached agreement with the City of Portland for a restoration project in Crystal Springs Creek that allowed for return of wild salmon to areas that had been blocked for years

Generally, Congress coordinates proposed legislation impacting our nation’s waterways with the Corps of Engineers, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) and other appropriate agencies. That’s the prudent thing to do. If either the Corps of Engineers or the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) felt strongly enough about an issue and there was no coordination done, it may set up a potential veto. But that does not happen often, if ever. Acknowledging and soliciting the Corps’ expertise and role as part of our nation’s infrastructure program is important to attain outcomes that balance various factors leading to solutions that are truly in the national interest.

*The Preferred Alternative is described in detail in Chapter 7 of the CRSO EIS. The Preferred Alternative is the Selected Alternative in the ROD.

Incidentally, for an article John wrote about Corps of Engineer policy and Native American treaties, click here.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.


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