For 17 days this summer, people worldwide followed the story of an endangered killer whale as she pushed her dead calf through the waters off Washington state.
Orcas feed on salmon, including those that must make it past the Snake and Columbia river dams.
“We were all saddened to see the recent death of a newborn baby whale off the coast of Washington,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., on Monday. “However, the four lower Snake River dams didn’t cause the whale to die.”
McMorris Rodgers was one of three U.S. representatives – all Republicans – to attend a field hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday in Pasco.
It was organized by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., to educate Congress and the people of the nation on the value of the Columbia and Snake hydropower dams and the challenges to their long-term viability.
“You all know that,” he told a crowd of about 70 people who rallied in front of Pasco City Hall in support of the system of dams. “The rest of the country needs to know that.”
Later, about 75 attended the hearing at Pasco City Hall, led by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.
Supporters of the hydropower system, particularly the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington, have been increasingly concerned about their future since U.S. Judge Michael Simon overturned an operating plan for the Columbia and Snake river hydroelectric dams in 2016.
It had been negotiated by scientists and other experts at federal agencies under both Democrat and Republican administrations, states, tribes and local interest groups.
The judge found it did not do enough to help restore salmon runs and ordered a new environmental study that would include a look at tearing down the four Snake River dams in Eastern Washington.
He also ordered more water to spill over eight Columbia and Snake dams each spring starting in 2018 to see if it would help young salmon migrating to the ocean. That means the water would not be available to generate power.
“Anti-dam groups continue to present Snake dam removal as a silver bullet that will save the Northwest’s endangered salmon and orcas,” Flores said. “It is a false premise but a powerful fundraising tool.”
She quoted a paper co-authored by Peter Kareiva, former chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy and current directory of the University of California-Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
“There is no doubt that dams have caused salmon declines, but the operators of the dams have spent billions of dollars to improve the safety of their dams for salmon, and it is not certain the dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river,” he wrote.
A complex species and river management issue has “been reduced to a simple symbolic battle – a battle involving a choice between evil dams and the certain loss of an iconic species,” he wrote.
The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that dams have a potential 2 percent impact on orca recovery, with ocean conditions and pollution having larger impacts, McMorris Rodgers said.
Recovering Western Washington rivers would be more helpful than the Snake River for providing the chinook that the orcas need, she said.
The hearing coincided with the release of a federal spending bill and and bill report with the final agreed language after combining separate versions of the Energy and Water spending billed passed by the House and the Senate.
It addressed increased water spilled over the dams, but did not order an end to the practice, as Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers have advocated.
Opponents of the spill say it is costing Northwest electric ratepayers an estimated $38.6 million a year because the spilled water cannot be used for electricity production.
The bill report language released Monday said that “many conferees have grave concerns about judicial interference in the operation of the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.”
There was no scientific backing provided for the increased spill or requirement that plaintiffs calling for the increased spill show that no harm would be done by it.
Spilling more water can threaten the reliability of the federal power and transmission system and could harm the fish it’s intended to help, the bill report said.
The increased spill results in more dissolved gases in the water, which can cause fatal symptoms in young fish, similar to when human divers get the “bends.”
Newhouse failed to get support from Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., to override the judge’s order.
“I have long insisted that we keep politics and partisanship out of this and allow the ongoing legal process to play out. I am glad this deal does exactly that,” Murray said after the bill report was released.
“Nothing in this report, and nothing in the bill itself, would insert Congress or partisan politics into the process or would interfere with the court-mandated comprehensive review that everyone can participate in and accounts for all uses of our river system.” Murray said.
At the House hearing, Glen Spain, representing the commercial fishing industry, said that when the last management plan, called a biological opinion, was agreed upon in 2014, the benefits to fish of water spilling through the dams were not yet fully understood.
“We can’t stop the clock and go back in time and rely on old science,” said Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “It’s increasingly clear that spill is a substantial benefit.”
But Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said there is no proof that more spill is better for salmon.
Modeling of this spring’s court-ordered spill showed there would be little to no impact on salmon survival, she said. Modeling was done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Science Center.
The Bonneville Power Administration was able to whittle down the $38.6 million cost to consumers from this year’s spill to $10 million by cutting other fish and wildlife projects, she said.
But the spill still added 840,000 metric tons of carbon to our skies, a 1.7 percent increase in the Northwest electricity sector emissions, she said.
Hydropower production is most likely to be replaced with natural gas production, which emits carbon dioxide.
The larger concern for most of those testifying at the Republican-led hearing was keeping the four lower Snake River dams standing.
The four dams provide enough power for nearly 2 million homes, McMorris Rodgers said.
They provide reliable power in the hottest days of the summer when the wind does not blow and the coldest days of the summer when the sun does not shine, making wind and solar power impractical, she said.
Dams, either on the Columbia and Snake rivers, provide barging and irrigation for agriculture and flood control for communities.
“Washington state is the most trade-dependent state in the country. An estimated 40 percent of jobs are tied to trade,” with the river system serving as a super-highway for moving products, she said.
Critics of the dams argue that shipping by barge has declined, but McMorris Rodgers said that 174,000 semis would be needed each year to move the same amount of goods now barged.
The committee will accept additional public comment related to the hearing “The Federal Columbia River Power System: The Economic Lifeblood and Way of Life for the Pacific Northwest” at naturalresources.house.gov under the “Contact” link.