Dams provide renewable energy to the Pacific Northwest, but they can also be harmful to salmon. That’s the heart of a current conflict between environmental groups and power companies like Bonneville Power Administration, which operates several dams on the lower Snake River near Seattle that provide a sizable percentage of the region’s power.

But it’s not just an age-old story of environmentalists versus power companies. Proponents of renewable energy, who support the use of dams to provide clean power, are fighting with conservationists over what’s more important: clean energy or the welfare of salmon that rely on the Snake River for survival.

Bonneville Power Administration recently began embracing wind power, installing wind turbines that help make power in the region even greener. The amount of wind power on Bonneville transmission systems quadrupled in the last three years and will likely double again in another two. But, installing wind power doesn’t make the dams obsolete as far as the company is concerned. It sees its dams as the ideal backup power source for those days when the wind simply isn’t strong enough to meet the power needs of the region, eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club beg to differ. Bill Arthur, a Northwest representative of the organization, praises the company’s efforts to add wind power but argues that the four lower Snake River dams, which are small, aren’t needed to back up wind power. The Sierra Club, along with fishermen and some politicians, believe they should be torn down because they impede the life cycle of endangered salmon.

Arthur suggests putting wind turbines in more places to help balance power generation, saying that the six or so years it would take to dismantle the dams gives Bonneville Power Administration plenty of time to transition to new power sources.

This situation isn’t unique. Conservationists are battling renewable energy projects all over the country, fearing that construction of wind turbines, solar arrays and other clean energy sources will have an adverse effect on wildlife and destroy the few untouched natural spaces America has left.

As the nation strives to meet ambitious clean energy goals, the need for compromise is evident. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, knows trade-offs are inevitable, but groups must work together to move forward.

“What you have to do,” Pope said, “is show that you’ve done the best job you can.”

Eco-wars: Battle between renewable energy and wildlife conservation
Washington power company's switch to wind power spurs calls to tear down energy-producing dams to protect endangered salmon.