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Flathead Electric Blasts Proposal
to Remove Snake River Dams

by Kate Heston
Daily Inter Lake, December 15, 2023

Montana and Idaho were left out of the negotiation processes,
despite having a strong interest in the issue

Graphic: Wild Chinook runs to the Lower Snake River as counted at the highest dam in place at the time. (1961-2020) Newly leaked settlement documents revealing that the Biden Administration would consider the removal of four lower Snake River dams has drawn public scrutiny from Flathead Electric Cooperative officials who contend that the potential loss in hydropower production would lead to rate hikes for its members.

"It has the potential to impact folks in Western Montana enormously, and frankly we are gravely concerned about the outcomes of this process," said Katie Pfennings, the community relations manager at Flathead Electric Cooperative.

The dams are within the Columbia River basin, which provides 60-70% of the electrical needs in the Pacific Northwest, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The basin is 258,000 square miles, with Hungry Horse Reservoir at the top of the system.

The contested dams on the Snake River produce hydropower for electric cooperatives across the Northwest, including those in Western Montana that are held by the Bonneville Power Administration. The administration markets wholesale electrical power from 31 federal dams through the Federal Columbia River Power System.

The Columbia River system has been tied up in ongoing litigation for decades, according to Pfennings. For the past two years, there has been a pause as the federal government engaged in mediation efforts with interested parties.

The recent mediation process attempted to address tribal treaty rights to a viable salmon fishery within the Columbia River basin.

A proposal that calls for removing four dams along the Snake River to restore the fisheries was leaked to the press late last month. Such a plan would require congressional approval and new sources of electricity generation would need to be created.

Pfennings contends that removing the dams would create significant changes in how the entire federal Columbia River hydro-system operates.

While the settlement does not specifically call for dam breaching, it calls for significant changes in how the system operates, including nearly $1 billion in high-cost projects that would set the stage for dam breaching further down the line, Pfennings said.

She warns that the costs for those projects could come from the pockets of energy consumers and taxpayers.

"It's our mission to provide affordable and reliable power to our members and this agreement definitely threatens our ability to do so," said Courtney Stone, the communications and marketing supervisor at Flathead Electric Cooperative.

Montana's congressional delegation has also expressed disdain for the proposed settlement.

This week, U.S. Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale spoke beside other Republicans at a House Water, Wildlife and Fisheries oversight hearing, blasting the settlement.

"I don't think there's any question that hydropower is reliable, it's affordable and it's abundant," Zinke said during the hearing. "... My concern is really sue, settle and seal."

Zinke said that too many of the people and groups that will be affected by the removal of dams were left out of the settlement, something Pfennings agrees with.

While Oregon and Washington were included in the discussion, Montana and Idaho were left out of the negotiation processes, despite having a strong interest in the issue, she said.

"With costs rising all over the rest of Montana, having access to affordable power is critical to the members we serve," Pfennings said. "This puts that at enormous risk."

The parties have until Friday, Dec. 15, to submit an agreement to a federal judge. The judge could affirm the settlement or deny it; Pfennings, Stone and the cooperative are hoping for the latter.

Kate Heston
Flathead Electric Blasts Proposal to Remove Snake River Dams
Daily Inter Lake, December 15, 2023

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