The majority of Washington voters would rather see increased wild salmon runs than preserve four lower Snake River dams, according to a poll released last week.
According to conservation groups, those results represent a marked shift in public opinion about a controversial proposition: removing dams.
“Yeah, I was encouraged,” said Sam Mace, the Inland Northwest Director for Save Our Wild Salmon. “The numbers gave me hope. People do care about salmon in a time where people are concerned about lots of things.”
The survey, conducted by a California-based company, completed 400 telephone interviews with Washington voters. A coalition of seven conservation groups paid for the survey.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, refuted the findings.
“That’s not what we’re hearing,” said Jared Powell.
Last week, the congresswoman traveled in Eastern Washington meeting with constituents.
McMorris Rodgers has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would protect the dams from removal. The bill, HB 3144, will likely receive a floor vote in the House of Representatives within the next two months after receiving a commitment from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Powell said.
“I don’t think that she’s listening to the range of her constituents and what they care about,” Mace said of McMorris Rodgers. “Our poll numbers show something different.”
According to the survey, 62 percent of voters statewide oppose the bill while 54 percent in the 5th District opposed the bill.
In an interview with The Spokesman-Review in February McMorris Rodgers defended the dams, citing cultural and economic reasons.
“The people of eastern Washington are strong supporters of the dams and I think they recognize the role they play and especially those that lived in Eastern Washington before the dams were put in,” she said. “They saw the transformation and the improved way of life and the improved economic opportunities.”
Mace and others say opinions and facts have changed. Successful dam removals elsewhere in Washington, like on the Elwha River, have convinced Washingtonians that it can be done, Mace said.
The economic benefits of the dams have lessened in recent years, she said. Changes in the electrical grid have given the Northwest a power surplus and shipping, long used by farmers to ferry wheat and other staples to Portland, has declined.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t opposition, or that some farmers won’t be negatively impacted, Mace said. Helping those who would be negatively impacted is a key concern for the coalition that paid for the study.
“Our coalition is very committed to putting forth a solution that makes sure those questions are answered and that farmers are taken care of,” she said.
McMorris Rodgers maintains that salmon and dams can coexist together. She points to improved technology helping salmon swim upstream. While other power sources – like wind – have become more relevant, she said hydro power is still vital.
“Yes, we’ve seen an increase in wind,” she said. “You need to have, in many ways, wind and hydro. It is a great marriage because when it’s not blowing, then the hydro power you can turn it on and you can produce electricity.”
If the dams were removed, rates would likely go up, although by how much is not clear.
According to the survey of Washington voters, 75 percent of voters would be willing to pay $1 more per month in electrical bills, 69 percent were willing to pay $3 more per month, 66 percent were willing to pay $5 more per month and 63 percent were willing to pay $7 more per month.
Spokesman-Review correspondent Joey Mendolia contributed to this report.
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