Saving rivers and fighting climate change: a personal conflict

Guest Author

I grew up fishing and floating the rivers of the American West, and now I work to help fight climate change through transportation electrification.

While these two passions should be symbiotic, two developments in the West highlight the potential conflict between preserving our watersheds and fighting climate change.

One decision is under review in Washington state, where hydroelectricity from dams is both zero-carbon and destructive to riparian ecosystems. The other is a mining permit recently reversed in Montana, which grapples with the source of rare earth materials that are critical to the clean energy revolution.

This summer, Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are expected to make an official recommendation on whether to breach four dams on the lower Snake River in the southeastern part of the state to restore sockeye salmon in the Snake, Salmon and Columbia rivers.

Dam removal has increased substantially in the U.S. since the 1990s. Free-river activists rightly argue that dams diminish biodiversity, threaten public safety when poorly maintained and were built without consideration of Tribal Nations’ land or values.

But power from dammed rivers is still the only widely adopted constant source of renewable electricity. So shouldn’t this zero-carbon energy be on the good side of the ledger? If the power of the four lower Snake River dams were replaced with natural gas generation, the additional emissions would be the equivalent of adding 421,000 cars to the road.

Enter the second decision.

On April 9, 2020, the state of Montana approved the Black Butte Copper Mine on Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Smith River. According to Sandfire Resources America, the mine’s owner, the mine will employ at least 240 people at an average salary of $71,000 and model “responsible, viable mining methods.”

Sandfire reminds us that “wind turbines contain 3-4 tons of copper per megawatt and electric vehicles use 3 times the amount of copper as a conventional car.” This past April, a state district court judge reversed the permit granted two years prior and ruled against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, finding the permitting decision “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful” and pausing the development of the mine. The decision is almost certain to be appealed.

These two decisions provoke contradictory emotions.

Electric vehicles are our low-carbon transportation future—and my livelihood. My first job was engineering the first all-electric trucks in the United States, and I now build wireless chargers for these same electric vehicles.

The rivers that I grew up on, with three generations of my proudly Western family, are what I personally dream of saving by helping stop climate change.

Every year since 1993, my family has applied for a permit for the five-day, 59-mile float on the Smith River. That’s 30 years of fat brown trout caught on Wooly Bugger flies slung against the overhanging canyon walls; 30 years of nights with guitars, whiskey, and a lifegiving fire; 30 years of mornings loading up snow-covered rafts; and 30 years of falling in love with Western rivers.

My family knows where it stands: for clean and free rivers and against mines near rivers and dams on rivers. Yet I also know that we need clean power and electric vehicles to stop climate change, a cataclysm that would irrevocably alter or destroy every river in the West. To get clean electricity and EVs, we need hydropower and copper (and a host of other minerals, like lithium), and these might only exist at the expense of clean and free rivers.

The tradeoff might be that the immediate adoption of renewable energy and EVs is the only way to have any Western rivers left to conserve. That’s the decision that justifies my work. This justification, though, can only go so far to help me weigh the tradeoffs of mining copper in Sheep Creek versus slowing the adoption of EVs, or to pencil out whether the dams on the lower Snake River are worth the fossil fuels left unburned.

Would our rivers prefer fewer dams but lower snowpacks and less water from the warming emissions of nonrenewable energy sources? Would the Smith, if we could ask it, choose to host the Black Butte Copper Mine to wire more solar panels, which may provide enough zero-carbon power to eliminate the lower Snake dams and return the sockeye spawn?

Today, we cannot be for clean, free and natural rivers and against mines and dams that help provide clean energy, at least not in a simple way. Climate change is forcing those of us who love rivers to reconsider what we are willing to sacrifice. Nothing is no longer an option.