Snake River Dams Enter Political Pictureby Nicholas Geranios, Associated Press
The Seattle Times, September 1, 2008
SPOKANE, Wash. - As the political season moves into high gear, two members of Congress from Eastern Washington are loudly defending four dams on the Snake River that environmentalists have long sought to breach.
The question is, what are they defending them from?
Even though no Democrats are currently calling for removal of the dams, U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Doc Hastings have gone on offense in the past couple of months, loudly touting the benefits of hydropower.
The four dams produce enough electricity to power Seattle, and also allow barges full of grain and fuel to operate as far upstream as Lewiston, Idaho, reducing truck traffic. But they are also blamed for devastating Columbia River salmon runs, and conservationists for years have sought their removal.
"At a time of growing energy demand, it makes no sense to throw this energy resource away," said McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
McMorris Rodgers, who represents the Spokane region, is linking her re-election campaign directly to the dams. Barns in rural areas of the 5th District sport large signs saying "Save Our Dams," with even larger campaign signs for McMorris Rodgers directly underneath.
Hastings, from the Tri-Cities, said dams provide 75 percent of what is considered "renewable" energy, and are a necessary backup for wind and solar power systems that are less reliable.
"They should be more popular as clean and low-cost power, but there's been little indication that anti-dam activists are changing their tune," Hastings said.
There is no doubt that Northwest environmental groups for the past decade have pushed for removal of the huge dams, and have found Democratic allies in Congress.
But with close races for the White House and for Washington governor, the state's Democrats are not rising to the bait. Democratic leaders - who must balance the heavy environmental vote around Seattle against pro-business sentiments else where in the state - are generally ignoring the dam issue, or staking out careful positions calling for more salmon while stopping short of calling for dam removal.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is not up for re-election, declined to discuss the issue.
"I think there are a lot of moving parts right now and we are waiting for them to play out," said Alex Glass, spokeswoman for Murray.
Even Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, who represents the Seattle area, has toned down the dam-removal rhetoric in his latest salmon recovery efforts.
A bill he sponsored in 2007 called for a study on all the options available to restore wild salmon runs, but stopped short of calling for dam removal.
But critics still feared the study would eventually be used to justify dam removal.
Before global warming and $4 per gallon gas, calling for removal of the dams to save salmon was something of a no-brainer for environmentalists and their political allies. They contended the fish were more important than cheap electricity.
But the issue has become more complex. The desire to save an iconic Northwest species from extinction is now pitted against the desire to slow global warming.
Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose Dam and Lower Granite dams were built in the 1950s and 1960s to open the lower Snake River to navigation and to make electricity. They also provide some flood control and irrigation for farms.
A federal judge in Portland is deciding what steps the government must take to restore endangered salmon runs. But only Congress can order that the dams be breached, so politics will play a huge role. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has not taken a stand on the four dams, while Republican John McCain says he wants to preserve them as power producers.
President Bush visited Ice Harbor Dam in his first term and declared the dams would not be removed on his watch.
It's the fear of a Democratic White House that McMorris Rodgers and Hastings up in arms, contends Michael Garrity of the environmental group American Rivers, which advocates for tearing down the dams.
"They are taking the threat more seriously than in awhile," Garrity said.
Luke Esser of the state GOP said Democrats are hiding on the issue because dam removal is becoming less popular with the public.
Terry Flores of Portland, Ore., spokeswoman for Northwest River Partners, an association of utilities, barge companies and other river users, said their polling shows strong support among for the dams in the region.
"It's really clear that people are connecting the dots between climate change and the value of hydropower that comes from these Snake River projects," she said.
But most environmental groups remain unequivocal. Idaho Rivers United, for instance, continues calling for removal of the dams, saying modest increases in salmon runs this year do not signal that fish species are recovered.
"We can have healthy salmon populations, a vibrant economy in Lewiston and Clarkston, fishing opportunities and a reliable energy supply," said Bill Sedivy, director of the group, said. "But we can't have all those things with the lower Snake River dams in place."
Hydro provides about two-thirds of Washington's electricity, a major reason the state's carbon footprint is much lower than places where coal or other fossil fuels are used to make power, McMorris Rodgers said.
Hastings said removing the dams would require 70,000 more trucks to haul the grain and fuel the barges currently move. It would also require more power from coal and natural gas plants.
American Rivers believes the electricity produced by the dams can be replaced by conservation and by renewable resources. They contend that cargo displaced from barges would mostly travel by rail instead of trucks, Garrity said.
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