During his 35-year career with the Army Corps of Engineers as a civil engineer, Jim Waddell spent some of his time studying the four Lower Snake River dams
bordering Idaho and Washington in eastern Washington. He concluded the dams are an economic sham and recommended the Corps breach the dams back in 2002.
Now, 13 years later, Waddell is retired, but is featured in the 2014 documentary DamNation (distributed by outdoor clothing company Patagonia), which explores several dams in the United States and the benefits to removing them. The documentary was featured in the 2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, was screened at Boise State University twice, and continues its own tour throughout the world. It's also now streaming on Netflix.
Boise Weekly sat down with Waddell to talk about the film as well as his personal and professional insight into the controversial subject of dams.
How did the Army Corps of Engineers react when you recommended breaching the Lower Snake River dams?
They didn't come out and say you're a total jerk or anything but, you know, they can't do that. I basically became persona non grata. You know what the final answer was: "We're going to keep the dams," and, of course, they ignored what I was saying and just went with the status quo. They went with what they knew they were always going to say, despite spending $30 million on the [Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report/Environmental Impact Statement] study.
Then what's the point of the study?
They were told they had to do the study, and it created a lot of jobs. It lasted five or six years. Other than that, I don't know what the benefit was.
Tell me more about your experience with DamNation.
I got surprised by it quite frankly. About three years ago, the Elwha dams—on the Elwha River near where I live in Port Angeles, Wash.—were starting to be dismantled, and there was a science symposium at the college here, and I was there listening to presenters. I thought they were going to talk about the Elwha dams, but they started talking about the Snake River Dams and since I knew a lot about those, I started intently listening.
One of them was from Patagonia [Outdoor Clothing and Gear], Yvon Chouinard, and he was giving a really eloquent presentation about the damage to salmon and how bad it was. He said that these dams—unlike the Elwha dam—have a lot of economic output and so forth, so it will be much harder to get these dams down.
Of course, I knew better. At the end, I grabbed the mic and said, "I have a statement to make," and that's when I told them I worked for the Corps, and I said, "I'll probably get fired for what I'm about to tell you, but these dams are a travesty. They lose money."
Those comments were caught in camera ... by the film crew working on DamNation. They asked me for interviews, and that's how I ended up in the documentary.
What was the Corps of Engineers' reaction? Did you get fired?
I was not reappointed again.
You've been participating in panel discussions, including here in Boise, following screenings of DamNation. What did you hope that people would take away from that dialogue?
I hope they learned something that no one has understood clearly about these dams: They are incredibly expensive to operate. We've all been misled by the belief that these four dams are economic miracles for eastern Washington and this whole region, and it's actually the opposite.
Of course they make money. They're generating revenue; it just doesn't match the loss. There's more economic advantage from breaching the dams, primarily because of the cost that it takes to operate those dams is almost $300 million a year. In terms of economic development, you've got recreational benefits that range from $80 to $350 million per year you could gain if you breach the dams. That will clearly outweigh any other hydropower benefits.
What do you think is the likelihood that those dams will ever be breached?
Oh, I am absolutely convinced they will be breached and I think we can do it pretty quick.
The Corps, like many government agencies, is struggling to have enough money to run all these dams, so why don't you breach those dams and then invest the money into other dams that are viable, like the ones on the Columbia, and get a better return on investment? These dams are very ripe for breaching and it could be done in a matter of 18 months to two years if people would wake up and get serious, and tell your congressmen and senator that we're tired of seeing our money wasted. That's our tax money. That's our ratepayers money, and oh, by the way, we're killing salmon.
Just to be clear, you're not advocating to remove every dam in the United States.
Heck no. Absolutely not.
What makes these dams so unviable?
One of the big things is, the amount of water that flows through. The Snake is handicapped because it doesn't have the massive volume of water that the Columbia does. The Columbia dam is bigger and can run generators pretty much all year long, whereas the Snake River peaks in the springtime when the snowmelt comes in, so you've got all this energy being produced driving the prices down to nothing, so you're not getting good returns on that power. Then in the summertime, the Snake River flows go down so low that they can't run the generators all the time and yet, that's when they could make the most money.
Flow constraints are number one. Two, because they are the top four dams in the system for salmon, you've got a lot of expensive bypass systems on those four dams. They're 100-foot-high dams so that stuff is pretty involved technology. It was billions of dollars to install, and it continues to cost more money than we have to maintain it. Then [the infrastructure] becomes dangerous, so it's not doing its job anymore, and in fact creating more salmon mortality.
It's the hydropower halo around here. It's our thing in the northwest. But these things are expensive. There are better, cheaper alternatives these days.