Wash. State Deeply Divided Over Tearing Down
by Annette Cary
After decades of debate on whether the lower Snake River dams should be removed, Washington state residents remain deeply divided, according to the results of a draft study released Friday.
The state Legislature, at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee, paid for the $750,000 study that gathered perspectives on removing the four hydropower dams, including Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities.
There was little agreement on the impacts of breaching the dams on salmon, orca, agriculture, transportation and economics, the draft study concluded.
But there was consensus that people with different viewpoints wanted more information and respectful conversations.
"People told us that the manner in which the issue of dam removal is raised contributes to the overall frustration and negative reaction of those who live in southeastern Washington and are closest to the dams," the draft report said.
"Dam supporters feel the 'coast' is telling Eastern Washington communities what to do in a way that lacks respect and understanding of local values and priorities, and minimizes how changes to the dams would significantly affect their communities," it said.
There also is a need for greater respect and understanding of tribal communities and the challenges they have faced for well over a century, the draft study said.
PURPOSE OF SNAKE RIVER DAMS STUDY
The study was done at the recommendation of the state of Washington's Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which stopped short of recommending that the lower Snake River dams be breached as some of its members wanted.
Instead, it proposed creating an open process to address questions about removing the dams and associated economic and social impacts and costs of mitigating those impacts.
The task force, which looked at ways to halt the decline of the killer whales on the Pacific Coast that feed on chinook salmon, saw the study as a way to begin developing potential recommendations for the future of the dams.
U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both R-Wash., blasted the state report as wasteful spending.
"What this report tells us is Gov. Inslee spent three-quarters of a million dollars and a year's time to conclude 'there are differing perspectives' and 'more information needed' on this issue," they said in a joint statement.
"We had no idea a year ago when we said this study would be a wasteful use of taxpayer dollars just how accurate we'd be," they said. "Imagine how far $750,000 could have gone to directly support salmon recovery efforts. Every taxpayer in our state should be outraged."
Pacific Northwest Waterways Association said it appreciated the consultants in charge of the study hearing the viewpoints of its members, which includes ports, utilities and businesses that benefit from the dams, it said.
But the resulting draft report was "essentially a status report of river operations followed by a survey of opinions — not science-based salmon recovery," said the association's executive director, Kristin Meira.
STUDY FINDS "HOPE AND DESPAIR"
Environmental groups had a generally positive reaction.
The draft report "will help all of us understand better how we can secure a future of healthy salmon and orcas, clean affordable energy, rich agriculture and a strong economy," said Todd True, senior staff attorney for Earthjustice.
The National Wildlife Federation said Inslee had taken a "much-needed step, allowing us to take an honest look at how we've managed the Snake River and the true cost of declining salmon runs to our regional communities, upriver, downriver and on the coast."
The governor's office said consultants working on the study were not asked to make recommendations on the future of the dams.
Instead, they asked questions about what was needed to move the process related to the dams out of a cycle of study, legal action and court decisions to one of greater benefit to the communities affected across the state and the salmon and orca, his office said.
Inslee will use the study to comment on a federal environmental study looking at operation of the Columbia and Snake rivers hydropower system, including considering removing or breaching the lower Snake River dams.
As the state study notes, the federal study "will provide the next detailed analysis of the environmental and social impacts of the operations, maintenance and configurations" of the dams. Whether to remove the dams is a federal decision.
The draft study said that "careful and sensitive framing of any subsequent conversation" will be needed to lay a foundation for collaborative discussion on a process that is "so far stuck on its challenging issues."
"There is both hope and despair about what comes next and the potential for progress," it said.
Consultant Ross Strategic of Seattle and its subcontractors collected information by reviewing past studies, interviewing leaders at agencies and organizations affected by the dams, and through an on-going online survey.
DISPUTE OVER DAMS ECONOMIC AFFECT
The draft report presented pro and con opinions on whether to remove the dams for four key issues:
Better uses for the money might be managing predators like sea lions and investing in recovery of Puget Sound salmon, they said.
There would be no certainty that the river would return to conditions good for salmon if the dams were removed, they said.
Supports of breaching the dam said if tearing down the dams is the only action not yet tried that could make a significant difference for salmon populations.
Hatchery production of chinook has limited benefit to orca, since they are smaller and contain less fat than wild fish, they said. Hatchery stock also depress the genetic diversity of wild salmon, supporters of breaching said.
Ice Harbor Dam is fundamental to meeting the energy needs of the Tri-Cities during summer peak periods when the wind is not blowing.
Supporters of dam breaching said hydropower can be replaced with renewables such as wind power, as technology improves to store energy until it is needed. Cost increases would be small, they said.
The costs could put family farms out of business and damage the economies of local communities, they said.
Farmers are skeptical that land with reliably irrigated orchards and vineyards that the dams make possible would be easily transitioned to other crops.
Supporters of breaching the dams said taxpayers could pay costs of infrastructures needed to continue irrigation and the increased transportation costs. They said it would be less costly than the ongoing maintenance and repair of Snake River dams and locks.
Opponents of their removal question whether new tourists, such as those coming to river communities for white water rafting, would make up for the economic loss of other tourists, such as those on riverboat cruises.
The cost to improve road and rail transportation for agriculture shipping and to cover the increased costs of transportation and electricity would be millions, if not billions, they said.
But those who want to tear down the dams said job loss in Eastern Washington would be short term, and the area should be able to transition to a new and more robust economy.
Federal subsidies should cover many infrastructure costs for transportation and irrigation, helping farmers in the long term, they said.
State residents can continue to comment on the future of the Snake River dams, both through an online survey posted or by submitting written comments until 5 p.m. Jan 24.
The survey is at bit.ly/snakeriversurvey.
Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org (with the lsrd short for lower Snake River dams) or mailed to LSRD Stakeholder Engagement Draft Report, c/o Tess Wendel, 1325 Fourth Ave., Suite 1600, Seattle, Wash. 98101.
There also will be a public workshop in the Tri-Cities to discuss the draft report, at the insistence of Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers. Initially, only workshops in Vancouver and Clarkston, Wash., were scheduled.
The Tri-Cities workshop will be 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 13, with a program starting at 6:30 p.m. It will be at the Red Lion Hotel, 2525 N. 20th Ave., Pasco.
Public comments will not be heard at the workshop, but participants can submit written questions that the panel may address if time permits. Written comments also may be turned in at the workshop.
A final report is expected in early March 2020.
It's Not Even Close: Economics says the Snake River Dams Should Go by Daniel Malarkey, Sightline Institute, 9/16/19
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