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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Bonner Russell Cohen: Battle over dams and salmon still rages in Pacific Northwest

Bonner Russell Cohen

A June 18 announcement by the Biden administration that it plans to create a Columbia River Task Force led by political appointees at the White House Council on Environmental Quality has reignited the long-simmering dispute over the future of hydroelectric power in the Columbia River Basin.

The announcement coincided with the release of a 73-page Interior Department report on the impacts of federal dams on Native tribes and salmon throughout the Columbia River Basin. However, in a startling acknowledgment, the report says its findings are “based on limited sources.”

At issue is the fate of four dams on the Lower Snake River and what effect the breaching of those dams would have on the region’s supply of reliable and affordable electricity, and to what extent removal of the dams would benefit the Columbia River Basin’s salmon and steelhead.

The Columbia River Task Force will be headed by Nik Blosser, who previously served as chief of staff for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D). Suspecting that the task force and the report are a prelude to a move to breach the dams, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lost little time in airing her displeasure with the administration.

“This bad faith report is the latest in a long list of examples that prove the Biden administration’s goal has always been dam breaching,” Rodgers said in a statement. “They continue to undermine the honest regional dialogue we need to determine the future of the Columbia River System with a politically-motivated report that – in their own words – ‘is based on limited sources’ and uses ‘examples to support the conclusions.’ This irresponsible means to justify an end is misguided and should not be taken seriously, especially by those who understand the tremendous benefits this critical infrastructure provides to our region.”

McMorris Rodgers represents Washington’s 5th Congressional District, located in the eastern part of the state, which, along with parts of western Idaho and northeastern Oregon, are in the Columbia River Basin.

Power generated by the four dams is crucial to the region’s economy. Washington is the nation’s leading producer of hydroelectric power, with 60% of the state’s net generated electricity in 2023 coming from its dams, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Washington typically contributes between one-fourth and one-third of all conventional hydroelectric generation in the nation annually,” the EIA adds.

While moving toward – but not yet pulling the trigger on – breaching the Lower Snake River dams, the Biden administration is proposing the giant Lava Ridge Wind Project as its preferred renewable energy alternative it says will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The Bureau of Land Management chose a site on federal land in Idaho’s Magic Valley for the facility, but such was the opposition to Lava Ridge that the BLM was forced to scale back the project. Yet even the slimmed-down version would still place 312 wind turbines reaching 740 feet into the air (twice the height of the Statue of Liberty), with high-voltage power lines connecting the project to population centers needing the electricity.

Fueling resistance to breaching the dams and replacing them with wind (and solar) power are concerns about undermining the region’s power supply. At a Jan. 30 hearing before McMorris Rodgers’s Energy and Commerce Committee, Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, stated: “Wind and solar simply don’t work as direct, one-on-one replacements for hydropower in the Pacific Northwest.” At the same hearing, Casey Chumrau, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, underscored the dams’ role in the region’s agriculture.

“In the Pacific Northwest, specifically, we export 80% of all of our wheat production, and those Lower Snake River dams carry 10% of all U.S. wheat exports,” she told the committee. “Obviously, we depend on them very much to get our products to market.”

It is also not clear what, if any, effect removal of the dams will have on restoring sustainable runs of salmon through the Columbia River System, as even a 2020 NOAA report acknowledged.

There are other challenges facing migrating salmon and steelhead, including the exploding population of sea lions at the mouth of the Columbia River, polluted waters in Puget Sound, and illegal fishing.

Ripping out the Lower Snake River dams means taking a wrecking ball to a region’s energy, transportation, and agricultural infrastructure, for which the Biden administration can provide no rational explanation.

Bonner Russell Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.