the film
Commentaries and editorials

An Opportunity for Respectful Dialogue
on Salmon and Dams

by Kurt Miller
The Register-Guard, October 16, 2021

Ice Harbor dam impounds a reservoir that allows thirteen farms to pump irrigation water from a higher elevation than from the natural river, saving up to 80 feet of head and significant pumping expense. I've often told people that I was destined to become a hydropower advocate.

My formative upbringing took place at the edge of the Columbia River Gorge, the heartland of the largest hydropower system in the nation. My senior college thesis was written on the Bonneville Power Administration's long-term transmission policy, and I received my first full-time professional job at BPA as an economist in its Power Supply division.

Since that time, I've spent the entirety of my 30-year career working on energy supply issues, in one form or another.

However, my hydropower advocacy might never have happened without Walt Pollock, the person who made my first professional opportunity possible.

Like he has with so many others in the electric utility world, Walt has been a mentor, and I'm proud to say after all of these years, we are still in touch.

Of course, that doesn't mean we agree on everything. Walt recently wrote an op-ed endorsing the breaching of the lower Snake River dams. There is no question that Walt's perspectives are sincere and thoughtful. I can speak to his genuine nature firsthand.

Walt Pollock:Guest View: We can have our salmon and eat it, too

While I don't agree with his conclusions, our friendship offers a safe space to engage in a candid, respectful public dialogue.

In Walt's piece, he contends the lower Snake dams can be breached (i.e., removed) and replaced without increasing the threat of blackouts to the region.

I think his conclusion is a response to the wrong question because it seemingly looks at the electric grid in a static fashion.

The UN's recent Code Red warning, combined with the announcement by more than 200 medical journals that climate change represents the single greatest threat to global public health, are powerful signs that we are behind, not ahead, in a race against time.

Any step backward, like breaching four dams, which provide enough zero-carbon energy to power a city the size of Seattle, digs a deeper a hole in our effort to retire and replace our existing coal and natural gas-fueled generating plants. Those carbon emitters make up about 40% of the Pacific Northwest's energy supply.

From a public safety and decarbonization perspective, breaching dams should be off the table until the effort to eliminate fossil-fueled resources is fully accomplished. This ensures our grid can handle the transition.

Walt notes a renegotiated Columbia River Treaty with Canada could provide a new, important source of energy for the region. While we agree the treaty should be renegotiated to be fairer to U.S. interests, British Columbia -- where the Canadian treaty dams are located -- already acts as part of the western grid. Even with a new agreement, we'd only be dividing up the energy pie differently, not adding any renewable megawatts to the western region.

Lastly, we completely agree salmon recovery is of paramount importance for the Northwest at large and especially for Native American tribes. That said, the region's understanding of salmon science and climate change has meaningfully advanced since the 1944 report to which Walt refers.

A 2019 report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says as much about marine fish populations across the planet. The report specifically points to unabated warming oceans over the past 50 years as the main driver for declines.

Separately, a peer-reviewed scientific paper on published this year by NOAA Fisheries indicates that climate change-induced ocean warming represents an extinction-level threat to Chinook populations in the Pacific Northwest.

In short, slowing down our decarbonization efforts may represent a step backwards for salmon.

What I take away from this difference of opinion with my long-time mentor is there is room for respectful disagreement. Hopefully having these types of candid exchanges can advance our shared understanding and set an example for others that open dialogue is superior to courtroom tussles.

Related Pages:
We Can Have Our Salmon and Eat It, Too by Walt Pollock, The Register-Guard, 9/2/21

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest.
An Opportunity for Respectful Dialogue on Salmon and Dams
The Register-Guard, October 16, 2021

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