KENNEWICK — As the Tri-Cities sweltered under a late July heat wave, the value of the lower Snake River Dams in Eastern Washington is apparent, said speakers at a Richland rally Monday night.
Electricity from wind, which has been proposed as a replacement for hydropower, was almost nonexistent during the days when electricity to cool homes in 112-degree temperatures was needed most, pointed out Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.
Lori Sanders, president of the Benton PUD Board, said that the lower Snake River dams provide 25% of the blackout insurance for publicly owned electric utilities in the region, making sure that when electricity is needed the most the grid delivers it.
It makes no sense to tear out the dams which are used by farmers to move wheat and other ag products at a time when food supply chain issues are at their worst and gas prices are at record highs, said U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. Grain now moved by barge would need to be sent by truck and rail to market without the dams.
“When heat waves like we’ve had settle in on our region and wildfires are raging, it is absolutely ludicrous that anyone would want to tear out the source of clean energy and transportation that will increase carbon emission,” Newhouse said.
Multiple reports have agreed that taking out the hydroelectric dams would increase electricity prices.
That makes no sense with the economy in recession and families having a more difficult time keeping their homes cool, said U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.,
The rally at Howard Amon Park was organized by Newhouse the day before the primary election, as support grows outside the Tri-Cities region to breach the four lower Snake River dams in an attempt to help rebuild salmon runs.
Well over 100 people held up signs, rang cow bells and cheered as speakers repeated the pros of the dams that Tri-Cities residents have been repeating for more than 20 years.
Families rely on Snake dams
What’s changed recently is support from Washington state top leadership, and now the nation’s president, to remove the dams, said Katie Nelson of Kamiak Vineyards and Gordon Estate Wines.
She thought that democrats Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington U.S. Sen. Patty Murray once supported keeping the dams, but that appears to have changed, she said.
“It seems like they are — along with President Biden — OK with taking our livelihoods” over an uncertain chance that fish might benefit, she said.
The farmland her parents bought in the 1970s has grown into a business that supports four to five families plus the families of the seasonal workers it hires, Nelson said.
But it depends on water from the Snake River.
She’s been told by supporters of breaching the dams that her family should dig deeper wells or lower their pumps that draw water from the river.
That would be expensive and there is no way to know how low the water table might be in drought years, she said.
Dam reports questioned
A recent draft report commissioned by Inslee and Murray to assess what it would take to replace the benefits of removing the Snake River dams is clearly biased, Sanders said.
It downplays the importance of the dams by using drought years as baselines and including utilities that don’t get power from the dams to diminish the reported capacity, she said.
New claims that there are “latent” deaths of salmon after passing the dams is not scientifically supported, she said.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has proposed spending $33 billion to mitigate the affects and replace the benefits that would be lost by removing the Snake River dams.
That’s equal to 330 years of salmon recovery funding now being spent annually in Washington state, Myers said.
The money would all be bet on seeing whether the salmon survival at dams like Lower Granite on the Snake River could go from 98% to 100% survival, he said.
Investments in technology improve salmon passage at the Snake River dams is working, and more salmon are returning to spawn, McMorris Rodgers said.
Smolt returns in undammed rivers in Canada and Alaska are comparable to those in the Snake River now, Sanders said.
NOAA report on breaching
The most recent support for breaching at least one of the lower Snake River dams comes from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration draft report released in July.
The Biden’s administration draft report looked at the state of the science on restoring salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin and the large scale actions needed to make progress toward healthy and harvestable fish stocks.
“It has become overwhelmingly clear that business as usual will not restore the health and abundance of Pacific Northwest salmon,” said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at a news media briefing Monday.
Chris Jordan, one off the scientists who worked on NOAA’s draft report, said extensive actions have been taken in the last 20 years — in the hydroelectric system, the estuary, hatchery programs and predatory management — without seeing hoped for salmon recovery.
But speakers at the rally said not enough has been done to address other problems affecting salmon, such as toxic waste dumped in the Puget Sound.
Breaching one Snake River dam would be just the start of breaching not only the other Snake River dams but also hydropower dams on the Columbia River, Newhouse said.
Those at the rally in Richland understand the benefits provided by the dams, but other people in the Northwest do not, Newhouse said.
The economy and culture of the Mid-Columbia, and its role in helping feed the world, are dependent on the dams, he said.
“Today we are all standing here to show that we will not let our communities be devastated,” Newhouse said. “We will not let radicals dictate to us our way of life and we will not let the dams be breached.”