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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Will state really study removing Ballard Locks and raising Lake Washington? No dam way

Washington Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, showing speaking on the Senate floor on Jan. 15, 2020, is among a group of Republican lawmakers calling for special legislative session. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Washington Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, showing speaking on the Senate floor on Jan. 15, 2020, is among a group of Republican lawmakers calling for special legislative session. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – Thousands of bills get introduced every legislative session, but most never become law. Many, in fact, never get more attention than a brief mention on the floor of the House or Senate, a number and a link on the legislative website.

Legislators know this, and will introduce bills that have no chance of passing to mollify an aggrieved constituent, vent a pet peeve or make a point that is held by a minority – sometimes a minority of one – to the greater majority.

Rarely do such “hero” bills even get a hearing, particularly in even-numbered years when the session is shortened to 60 days and bill-killing deadlines come quickly. So it was a bit surprising last week when the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee scheduled a hearing on a bill to study removing three dams on the Skagit River that supply electricity to Seattle, as well as taking out the Chittenden Locks at Ballard and the Montlake Cut, returning Lake Washington to its historic level.

There is no person, organization or government entity seriously looking at this, partly because it would have a price tag of roughly two gazillion dollars. It was a message bill from Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

He proposed the Legislature spend money to study the costs and benefits of those possible changes, primarily as a sarcastic counter to calls by some Puget Sound politicians to breach the four federal dams on the lower Snake River. Pro-dam folks are still cheesed that the Seattle City Council adopted a resolution in favor of removing the Snake River dams in 2000, and some politicians from the area continue to support breaching the dams to help restore salmon runs.

Development of the Seattle area, including the building of the locks and the Montlake Cut on the ship canal that connects Lake Washington to Lake Union, along with the three Skagit River hydroelectric dams, also changed the landscape and wiped out historic salmon runs, Ericksen said. The lake was lowered, some rivers dried up and others were rerouted. His PowerPoint presentation had some historic pictures of the way things were shortly after the turn of the last century.

People in Seattle – by which Ericksen generally means busy-body liberal Democrat environmentalists – who want to remove dams to help restore salmon runs should “take a look in their own backyard,” he said.

The plan put some opponents of breaching the Snake River dams in a tough spot, prompting them to list themselves as “other” – which is to say neither for nor against Ericksen’s bill.

Diana Carlen of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers said that group doesn’t support removing dams on either side of the state. No one understands the impact of removing dams better than wheat growers, so they appreciate “the dialogue,” she said.

“We care about salmon, and we care about orcas,” Carlen said. “Recovery of both is not an East Side or a West Side problem. It’s a problem for both sides.”

“We don’t believe you should actually enact this. It doesn’t make any more sense to tear the heart out of the city of Seattle than it does to tear the heart out of Eastern Washington,” Jim Jesernig, a spokesman for the state Potato and Onion Association and state Grain Commission. But he wanted to applaud Ericksen’s effort to tell people to “take a look in the mirror.”

The dialogue Ericksen’s proposal sparked was pretty limited. The feds own the Ballard Locks, and changing the height of Lake Washington could seriously damage the two floating bridges and damage the shoreline, warned Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island. Maybe they should just skip removing dams and spend the money on fixing culverts to give Puget Sound salmon a way to get to blocked spawning grounds, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said. Nice bit of history, said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach.

No group that supports the removal of Snake River dams made it to the hearing, likely because they knew it wasn’t a serious bill.

Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said in a later interview that Ericksen is wrong to frame the issue as East Side versus West Side, which she believes is more likely to push people apart than bring them together.

“It’s time to quit pitting people against each other,” she said, because both the Puget Sound and the Columbia-Snake river system need to be saved.

“It’d be easier to laugh at the bill if things weren’t so dire,” Mace said. “Plenty of people in Eastern Washington want to see the Snake River restored.”

Committee Chairman Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said he was given a hard time for giving the bill a hearing, but told Ericksen he deserved a chance to be heard.

“We often introduce bills to make a point,” he said.

Carlyle said later he’s been in the minority, as Ericksen is now, so he knows what that feels like. The committee will have substantive talks about how to help restore salmon, but it won’t be sending the full Senate Ericksen’s bill to take out the Ballard Locks and other structures.

“There’s not a chance on this planet that bill will move,” he said.

But it seems that when senators are grousing in the closing days of the session about running out of time for their important bills, no one should complain about time spent on such hero bills as naming a state dinosaur or approving another specialized license plate – efforts that take about five minutes of committee time – without noting that Ericksen got more than 20 minutes for his “message” bill that even he had to know was going nowhere.

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