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News / Northwest

U.S. energy secretary and Rep. Newhouse spar over ‘catastrophic’ Snake dam agreement

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: March 25, 2024, 7:40am

The nation’s energy secretary defended a recent federal agreement on the lower Snake River dams after Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said breaching the dams would be “catastrophic.”

He questioned Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm earlier this week at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water.

The agreement made public in December lays the groundwork for the federal government to work with four Northwest tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington to protect and restore salmon, steelhead and other native fish to the Columbia River Basin, including the Snake River.

It also requires studies on how the benefits of the four Snake River dams in Washington could be replaced. Benefits include electricity production, barging of farm products and other goods, irrigation and recreation.

Commitments made to states and tribes in the agreement are estimated to cost the federal government more than $1 billion.

The agreement, worked out behind closed doors in federal litigation, has been called a “roadmap” toward breaching the dams from Ice Harbor near Pasco to Lower Granite near Lewiston, Idaho.

“The agreement makes commitments to develop energy replacement for the dams, as well as recommending spillage operations,” Newhouse said.

Spilling more water over the dams rather than using it to produce electricity can help juvenile salmon, but too much spill increases gases — such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen — in the water that can kill juvenile salmon.

“Adjusting spilling operations could make the dams functionally obsolete and useless,” Newhouse said. “Energy prices will skyrocket, people who depend on the river system will suffer, and I believe the salmon population will be harmed, as well. It is in fact a de-facto breaching of the dams.”

Congress has the sole authority to breach the dams, Granholm said during the Wednesday hearing.

“I think the agreement was a positive step to replenish salmon, to be able to address hatcheries, to work with the tribes on additional power,” she said.

But that’s because there is not enough power being produced, rather than to replace hydropower, she said.

The agreement calls for the federal government to assist the four lower Columbia River tribes — the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs — in developing tribally sponsored clean energy projects.

Newhouse said it seems clear from the Biden administration “that the plan is in fact breaching the dams.”

But Granholm said the agreement would prevent consideration of breaching the dams for 10 years. Although it includes a study of replacement benefits, “There is no de facto or subterfuge here,” she said.

WA transportation issues

Newhouse also has asked a Washington state official about the impacts of dam breaching.

He and six other Republican Northwest congressional representatives, including Washington’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers, recently sent a letter to Roger Millar, Washington state secretary of transportation, asking how the state would handle increased truck and train traffic if the Snake River dams are breached.

At a January hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, R-Ore., told Millar that about 39,200 rail cars and nearly 150,800 semi trucks a year would be needed to move cargo that currently is barged on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

That would require three times the number of heavy and tractor-trailer drivers now employed in Washington, Oregon and Idaho at a time of worker shortages in both trucking and rail, the letter said.

Now 60% of all U.S. wheat exports are barged through the lower Snake River dams, with a single four-barge tow carrying as much wheat as about 540 semi-trucks.

It is the lowest cost shipping option, according to the lawmakers signing the letter.

Without the dams to allow barging on the Snake River, the increased fuel costs, highway maintenance costs, terminal facility maintenance cost, driver pay and vehicle maintenance costs would come to $69 million a year, the letter said.

Rail costs would likely be higher as well, it said.

More than $1 billion would be needed for capital investments in highway, rail, grain elevators and other infrastructure, it said.

Capacity on highways and railroads would be at all-time high, it said.

The letter asked Millar for more information on how the Washington state Department of Transportation could continue to meet transportation needs if the lower Snake River dams are breached and how it would provide alternatives to continue to grow the Pacific Northwest economy.

Signing the letter in addition to Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers and Chavez-DeRemer, were Reps. Cliff Bentz of Oregon, Russ Fulcher of Idaho, and Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke, both of Montana.

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