Don Brunell Commentary: Drained Snake River Reservoirs Would Resemble Parched Rhine Riverbeds


If you want a glimpse of parched river bottoms behind “would be breached” lower Snake River dams, look at recent photos of European rivers and lakes.  On parts of the picturesque Rhine River, there is often more dry land than flowing water.  

Europe is in the clutches of another drought — the second since 2018. It is so severe that countries across the continent are imposing water restrictions. There are massive fish kills and desiccated croplands.  Shipping is endangered on the Rhine and the Danube rivers and barges have dramatically lightened loads.  

It is an ugly mess.

For Germany, the drought is bad timing.  It fired up coal power plants to offset Russia’s restricted natural gas supplies.   The drought is exacerbating an even bigger crisis for Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, which is already facing the risk of recession because of an energy crisis, high inflation and supply chain bottlenecks, CNN reported.

In the Pacific Northwest, we are fortunate. Most parts have avoided severe drought and our reservoirs have adequate water storage thanks, in large part, to a network of dams and storage reservoirs stretching from Montana and Idaho to seaports in Washington and Oregon.    

Integral to the Columbia-Snake River System are four lower Snake River dams that, if Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Mike Simpson have their way, will be senselessly demolished. Their plan is estimated to cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion.

The network of dams is an efficient marine highway.  It is the most environmentally friendly way to move cargo from Lewiston to Astoria.  A tug pushing a barge can haul a ton of wheat 576 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Ten percent of all Northwest exports pass through the four lower Snake River dams. They generate $20 billion in trade, commerce and recreation income.  Water from their reservoirs nourishes thousands of farms, orchards and vineyards. 

Billions of dollars have been paid by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) ratepayers to improve fish passages and spawning habitat throughout the Columbia/Snake River system is now paying off. Salmon are returning from the ocean to spawn above the dams.  

It wasn’t always that way.  In 1992, a single male sockeye salmon, dubbed Lonesome Larry, managed to swim 900 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to Redfish Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.  By 2011, the Idaho Fish and Game Department reported that 1,070 sockeyes returned to Redfish to spawn.   

The four Lower Snake River dams provide enough electricity for 1.87 million homes when generating at full capacity. On average, they contribute 5% of the Northwest’s electricity supply. 

As Inslee pushes to adopt electric vehicles, having an adequate and reliable supply of electricity to charge batteries is vital.  The lower Snake River Dams are integral to that network.

Replacing their power output would take two nuclear plants, three coal-fired generators or six-gas fired electric facilities and it would be hugely expensive. In 2015, BPA estimated it would add 12 to 15% to household and business electric bills.

According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, removing the Snake River dams would add between 3 and 4.5 million metric tons of CO2 to Northwest skies each year. That’s because the carbon-free power these dams provide would have to be replaced, in large part, by carbon-emitting, gas-fired facilities.

For those of us remembering the government’s experimental 1992 reservoir drawdowns of the Lower Granite and Little Goose dams and the ugly mess it created, dam removal is an unsightly and costly option.

We are fortunate our region has its dams.  Thankfully, we do not have water shortages this year and there is enough for fish, farms, electricity and barging — something European leaders wish they had.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at