Snake River Dam Power:
by Dan Catchpole
"We're going to use the info [from E3] to help inform our participation with the [Biden] administration
in discussions with regional entities related to the Columbia River system,"
-- BPA spokesman Doug Johnson
As the Northwest Power and Conservation Council ponders undertaking an extensive study of breaching the lower Snake River dams, the fate of the hydropower projects is drawing renewed attention from the White House and several Congressional Republicans from the Northwest.
Meanwhile, Bonneville Power Administration has hired Energy and Environmental Economics to look at what resources it would take to replace the dams.
"We're going to use the info [from E3] to help inform our participation with the [Biden] administration in discussions with regional entities related to the Columbia River system," BPA spokesman Doug Johnson said.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has been meeting around the region with key players in the debate over the four dams -- Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Granite and Lower Monumental -- and the survival of the four protected fish species that spawn in the waterway. The dams put out about 1,024 average megawatts, representing approximately 12 percent of BPA's average annual energy generation.
Participants at the meetings have included representatives from tribes and conservation groups, as well as officials from 10 federal agencies, including Bonneville. The discussions began after the Biden administration, conservation groups and the State of Oregon agreed on Oct. 21 to pause their legal fight over how to run the Columbia Basin's federal dams for nine months, Johnson said.
The agreement came shortly after CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory spent several days in Washington state, including an Oct. 4 meeting in Toppenish, Wash., with representatives from the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Yakama Nation; and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The next day, she met with more tribal representatives and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Following those meetings, the White House announced on Oct. 6 that it would restore environmental review standards rolled back by the previous administration in 2020.
Even as the administration reaches out to environmental advocates, the federal government continues to fight conservation groups in court over how to manage the Columbia River system.
In 2020, conservation groups slammed the Columbia River System Operations EIS for not choosing breaching the dams as the Preferred Alternative and accused the Trump administration of leaving the basin's endangered fish species high and dry.
In letters to 10 federal agencies and the White House, eight Republican Congressional members asked the administration to clarify why the CEQ is holding talks around the region.
The letter to the White House asks whether the CEQ is "formally re-entering consultation" on the 2020 record of decision that approved the EIS.
"Other than bringing the agencies together for discussions on species recovery, what actions is the Council directly taking and in what activities is it participating?" the GOP delegation asks.
"What information is this stakeholder engagement process expected to uncover that was not made available from the BiOp or ROD?" the letter also says.
The White House CEQ did not respond for comment.
The Republican Congress members emphasized the dams' contributions to the Northwest power system in language repeated in the 11 letters, including one to Bonneville.
"The need for this capacity was demonstrated during severe cold and heat events last year," the letters state. "In 2021, BPA issued assessments indicating the lower Snake River dams prevented rolling blackouts during the deep freeze and severe heat events in the Pacific Northwest."
Citing Washington state's 2020 state of salmon report, the letters say that two of the four protected fish species that spawn in the Snake River -- fall run Chinook and steelhead -- are making progress on recovering.
The Republicans asked for answers from the agencies and the White House by May 1.
One of the signers, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) turned up the partisan rhetoric on the issue in comments during a March 16 House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing.
Advocates for breaching the dams "have placed a bullseye on our river system and this critical infrastructure, which provides clean, carbon-free energy throughout the region, water for our crops, and transportation to move our goods to export markets," he said. "It is clear that many of these dam-breaching proponents have long since stopped caring about the salmon or the benefits of the river system."
Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) and Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.) also signed the letters.
NWPCC staff had hoped to give Council members a proposal in March for an exhaustive study of how removing the lower Snake River dams could affect the region's power system. However, staff has been inundated with feedback.
Many commenters are concerned that the revamped version of the GENESYS model used by Council staff in the 2021 Power Plan hasn't been adequately vetted to conduct the study.
"We're very confident in the new GENESYS model," NWPCC Power Planning Director Ben Kujala said.
No other model competes with the Council's revamped GENESYS when it comes to modeling the Northwest's hydropower system, he said. "If there was something out there that had it, I would have gone out and gotten it. Redeveloping GENESYS was no easy task."
If the Council conducts the study, its analysts will use "any tool available," including the redeveloped GENESYS, regardless of lingering reservations, Kujala said.
"I've been very clear: Our analysts get to use whatever tools they have," he said. "I don't tell my plumber what wrench to use."
In previous NWPCC meetings, Kujala sketched out a draft scope of work for a study that could take as long as two years to complete. It would look only at how removing the dams could affect the Columbia River's hydropower system and the regional power grid's flexibility and reliability, and what replacement resources would be needed. Potential effects on fish and wildlife, the economic viability of the dams or any other issues outside the regional power system would not be considered.
The Council has provided hydro modeling data to E3, which the San Francisco-based consulting firm has used for its own studies. The model results have come from the much less dynamic and granular classic version of GENESYS, Kujala said.
The firm's founder, Arne Olson, declined to comment.
E3 will examine what resources would be needed to replace power attributes of the lower Snake River dams, Johnson said. "BPA is confident E3 has the data, tools and expertise to effectively deliver sound analysis," he said.
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