Deep in the bowels of Idaho’s Brownlee Dam, Neal Lincoln is ready to offer a demonstration
Almost 40 feet below the surface of the Snake River — whose waters originate in Yellowstone National Park, then cascade down the Rocky Mountains and course across Idaho — Lincoln makes a call to the power plant control room. The narrow hallway where we stand waiting is chilly, the air dank and the floor covered with leakage from the river.
A siren goes off. A minute later there’s a long whooshing sound from behind an imposing metal hatch, as the control room fires up the hydroelectric turbine on the other side — the largest hydro turbine operated by Idaho’s largest power company.
I grab hold of a handle on the hatch, my fingers brushing a “DANGER” warning sticker, and feel a powerful vibration as water rushes through the turbine. As the blades turn, they spin a generator up above, sending electricity onto the power grid. Below, the water exits through a large tube, emerging from the bottom of the dam and into the river more than 50 feet beneath us.
Here in the narrow hallway, it’s getting louder and louder, the walls rattling and rumbling. There are no fossil fuels being burned, no coal or oil or natural gas heating the planet and filling the air with pollution. Just hydropower, which forms the backbone of the Gem State’s electric grid and has allowed Idaho Power to pledge 100% clean energy by 2045.
It’s an unprecedented green ambition in a deep-red state — or a greenwashing sham, depending on whom you ask.
Brownlee is one of 17 hydroelectric dams owned by Idaho Power on the Snake River and its tributaries. These artificial river-stoppers, and others operated by the federal government, have devastated salmon and steelhead trout populations, blocking many of their historical spawning grounds and depriving Indigenous tribes of fish central to their nourishment and cultures.
Those harms, and others, aren’t unique to Idaho.
Across the American West, dams have reshaped ecosystems for the worse, raising water temperatures, diminishing downstream flows and driving fish species toward extinction. From Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River to Hoover Dam on the Colorado, reservoirs have fueled toxic algae blooms, increased evaporation and flooded land that was home to Native Americans for millennia.
As far as some tribal and environmental activists are concerned, many of those dams never should have been built.
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