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Aug. 7, 2022

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Why public power utilities are pouring cash into the campaign to support Lower Snake River dams

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SEATTLE — Northwest power utilities have poured more than $2 million into a public-relations campaign to convince the region’s residents that breaching four hydropower dams on the Lower Snake River is a bad idea.

Dam proponents are concerned they have not done enough to counteract other campaigns by environmentalists, tribes and salmon advocates making the case for dam removal to recover Snake River salmon runs listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The Trend is Not Our Friend,” declared a March 10 fundraising presentation that cited polling results indicting a six-year surge — from 12% to 29% by 2021 — in public support for breaching the dams in southeastern Washington.

The campaign objectives include creating “mass mobilization” for grassroots activities, rallying opposition to any legislation that seeks to breach the Lower Snake dams and changing the narrative about the dams among “progressive constituencies,” according to the presentation developed by the Northwest RiverPartners, an association of public and cooperative electric utilities that has organized the campaign.

The public-relations blitz unfolds in a year of escalating debate — and political tensions — over the fate of the dams that in an average year generate about 10% of the power from the federal Columbia Basin hydropower system.

A June 9 draft report released by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray found breaching offers the best chance to recover salmon in the Lower Snake, boost fishing opportunity and meet federal responsibilities to tribes. The study did not take a position on whether that should happen, and put the cost of replacing the dams at $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion.

The campaign’s backers fear a significant rise in power rates. They also fear an increasingly unreliable grid more prone to blackouts if solar, wind and battery storage replace the dams. Their campaign promotes retaining the dams to aid in the transition to a 21st century free of carbon emissions that drive climate change.

The Northwest RiverPartners’ presentation outlining the campaign listed contributions of nearly $2.16 million from 17 Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho nonprofit public and cooperative utilities. The Washington Grain Commission, whose members benefit from barge traffic made possible by the dams, contributed $25,000, and the Washington Potato Commission, some of whose members benefit from irrigation waters from Lower Snake dam pools, also contributed $25,000.

One slide in the presentation listed a fundraising goal of $4 to $6 million. Northwest RiverPartners did not respond to a request for an updated contribution tally.

“It should be no surprise that an advocacy group made up of community-owned utilities would be advocating for their ratepayers,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, in a written statement. “Our collective investment to inform the public of what is at stake with breaching the dams is less than pennies on the dollar compared to the cost to climate and ratepayers if we lose these dams.”

Utilities lead donations

As of March, south-central Washington’s Benton Public Utility District was the biggest campaign contributor, with a $600,000 donation.

Rick Dunn, general manger of the Benton PUD and Northwest RiverPartners boardmember, said the four Snake River dams supply about 10% of the utility’s annual energy consumption delivered to 56,289 metered connections.

The Benton County PUD has a 2022 operating revenue of $163.4 million, and Dunn said current threats to breaching the dams justified the donations, which were approved in a unanimous board vote in January. Benton County made an initial $300,000 donation, then matched other contributions for an additional $300,000.

“We don’t take it lightly to spend that kind of money, obviously, on something like this effort,” Dunn said. “It’s definitely something, historically, that we have never done … It was not a kind of slam-dunk, easy decision.”

As of March, Kalispell, Montana-based Flathead Electric Cooperative, along with Washington’s Franklin Public Utility District, were tied for the second largest contributions. Each kicked in $240,000.

In a statement, Mark Johnson, Flathead’s general manager, said protecting the dams was “absolutely essential to protecting the interests of our 56,000+ members in Northwest Montana.”

Later this summer, Murray and Inslee are expected to decide whether to support dam removal. One of the Northwest RiverPartners’ campaign goals is to “dissuade” them from taking that position.

Utility officials who contributed to the campaign are concerned an attempt to gain congressional authorization to remove the dams could come before the November elections, according to a memorandum prepared for Benton PUD before the vote authorizing its $600,000 in donations.

The success of such an effort would appear to be a long shot.

But, Dunn said, “We are really concerned that this is getting legs, and this [campaign] spending is with an eye to the long term. It may be something we have to do going forward.”

A long-running fight

The Northwest RiverPartners campaign has been pitched to utilities as an effort to counteract public relations in support of dam breaching by the Idaho Conservation League, Earthjustice and other environmental groups. The campaign “team” includes Rick Desimone, a former chief of staff for Murray, and Global Strategy Group, a public relations firm that has often consulted for Democratic candidates as well as Amazon and some tech companies.

The campaign kicked off in May and has included television spots, print advertisements and social media.

One television ad declares “Climate change is here,” and notes the Lower Snake dams’ role in keeping power on during the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave. It then says, “The only way to replace dams would be by burning fossil fuels, making the impacts of climate change even worse.”

Yet there are proposals to phase out the four Lower Snake dams by adding more solar and wind and offer sources of power that don’t rely on the combustion of coal, natural gas or oil. The cost of such an effort, and how long that would take amid a broader transition away from fossil-fuel power generation, has been a topic of considerable study and has spurred debate.

The ads have drawn rebuttals from dam-removal advocates.

“They are defending a status quo that has failed the fish, tribes and many communities,” said Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Idaho Conservation League and American Rivers. “The campaign is pushing fear, and we wish it would be different. We are interested in dialogue, but it has to be done in good faith.”

Billions have been spent on trying to restore threatened and endangered salmon runs in the Columbia Basin, and a massive effort made to supplement wild runs with hatchery fish.

Environmental groups, sport fishing industry representatives and tribes with treaty rights to salmon have been engaged in more than 20 years of federal court battles focused on the restoration effort and operations of the hydropower system. There is currently a pause in the litigation for out-of-court negotiations. And salmon advocates are hoping this increases the chance for congressional action this year, and have mustered their own public-relations campaigns.

A full-page ad published this month in The Seattle Times from the Salmon Orca Project, the Nez Perce tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Yakama Nation declared, “We can replace the services the dams provide and ensure no community gets left behind.”

On Saturday in Portland, a flotilla of kayaks, canoes, fishing boats and rafts participated in a “Rally for Salmon,” organized by conservationists, tribes and anglers, to demonstrate support for dam removal.

“If we do nothing while temperatures rise in our rivers, and the ocean becomes more hostile to our anadromous fish species, we will face extinctions for our fisheries, “said Jeremy Takala, Yakama Nation councilmember. He called this “cultural damage that we could never repair,” according to a statement from Columbia Riverkeeper, which helped organize the event.

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