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Dam Debate Heads to Pasco

by Jim Camden
Spokesman Review, July 5, 2006

House panel to hear effects on salmon

Participants in the Northwest's long-running debate over salmon and dams will have a chance Friday morning to air their views at a congressional hearing in Pasco.

They're not likely to say anything that will surprise their allies or opponents in the controversy. Instead, they'll try to acquaint outside members of Congress with their views on the problem of too few fish in a river system with so many dams.

"I want to encourage some creative thinking," said Sid Morrison, a former congressman who serves as chairman of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance and is on the witness list for the hearing.

The House Water and Power Subcommittee will hold what's known as an "oversight field hearing" on electricity prices and salmon. At issue is a proposal by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris to require the costs of preserving salmon to be included on electric bills for customers of the Bonneville Power Administration.

That federal agency markets the electricity generated by federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Like most congressional hearings, it's not a public forum for anyone with thoughts on those subjects to have a conversation with House members. Instead, it involves testimony from invited speakers who can offer differing views on the problem.

For this hearing, the witness list is weighted in favor of development of the river, with representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, the head of BPA, farmers, irrigators and groups that represent what's commonly known as "multiple use." Also on the list is a representative of the Association of Washington Business, which opposes the removal of dams in the system and has called environmental groups who advocate that solution "zealots."

The director of the Northwest Energy Coalition, which includes environmental groups and others who support "spilling" water over the dams to speed the journey of young salmon downstream, was invited but can't attend, a coalition spokesman said. Someone from Save Our Wild Salmon may take her place, coalition spokesman Marc Krasnowsky said.

Morrison said he hopes to convince members of the subcommittee that the Endangered Species Act is "highly inflexible and inefficient" for the river system and that the courts have stepped into managing the river while Congress has "backed away."

He'll also try to put in a plug for the Black Rock irrigation project, a plan to pump water out of the Columbia when that river is high, and storing it in a reservoir for times when it can boost the flows of the Yakima River.

For Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, the hearing is an opportunity to make a pitch for water storage projects throughout Central and Eastern Washington. Rather than spilling so much water over the dams to flush young salmon, some should be captured in small reservoirs and diversion projects to regenerate the Odessa aquifer, Voigt said.

"The era of big dam building is gone," he said. "Some small-scale projects can get us where we're supposed to be."

One surprise on the witness list might be Scott Cooper, the director of parish social ministry for the Spokane Catholic Diocese. Cooper said he was surprised by the invitation to speak after receiving a call several weeks ago from a congressional office inquiring about the effect that rising energy prices have on the poor.

"As it stands right now, all of these resources are not sufficient to meet the needs," Cooper said. So, higher electric rates just make the problem worse, he added.

But Cooper is also going to tell the committee about the 2001 pastoral letter from Spokane Bishop William Skylstad and seven other Roman Catholic bishops from the Northwest, which calls for preserving the Columbia River's environment and resources, including the fish.

"The letter didn't advocate any one solution; it said you've got to hold all these competing interests in balance," Cooper said.

Jim Camden
Dam Debate Heads to Pasco
Spokesman Review, July 5, 2006

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