'Risky Proposition.' Can $33 Billion Make Up for
by Annette Cary
Simpson plan for Snake River dams, salmon restoration shows promise with supporters, critics
A new proposal to tear down the four Lower Snake River dams has people agreeing on one thing -- the dams' value to the Northwest region.
But many of those who rely on the dams now -- to produce low-cost and reliable electricity, to barge farm products for export, to provide irrigation water and for recreation -- are dubious despite the plan's attempts to make them economically whole.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho has proposed breaching the dams and spending $33 billion to dismantle them, build new energy and transportation systems and address the economic impacts of their loss.
It's the only way the conservative Republican sees to boost the declining population of certain species of salmon in Idaho that must make a 900-mile journey to and from the Pacific Ocean, navigating at least eight hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
The Tri-Cities along with the Lewiston-Clarkston area are the two metro areas with the most to lose if the dams are breached.
"We appreciate that Rep. Simpson's concept attempts to address the wide array of negative impacts that would come from removing the dams, but at the end of the day dam removal is simply not good public policy," said David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council.
That is even though TRIDEC would receive $75 million to be spent on local economic development.
"There is no certainty that removing the dams would result in significantly better fish numbers, but we do know for certain that it would hurt communities and industries throughout the Pacific Northwest," Reeploeg said.
Groups and business interests that have fought for more than two decades to keep the Lower Snake River dams aren't willing to let them go now, particularly when the Northwest may be facing power generation and reliability issues even without the loss of the dams.
But some long-time supporters of keeping the lower Snake River dams are open to at least listening to what Simpson has to say and see if he wins the backing of the rest of the Northwest Congressional delegation to move forward.
Congressional support was not off to a strong start.
"I have said it time and time again -- as long as I am in Congress, nobody is tearing down our dams," said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
"I have great respect for Rep. Simpson, and we will continue to work together on many different policy issues that impact the Pacific Northwest. But removing or breaching the Lower Snake River Dams is one that we fundamentally disagree on."
Newhouse also joined Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington state and Russ Fulcher in Idaho on Friday in a resolution in support of existing and new Northwest hydropower.
"(Hydropower) benefits every resident, family, and business in our region, and it's an important component of the all-of-the-above energy strategy that will ensure the United States maintains energy independence and leadership on the global stage," the resolution said.
WILLING TO DISCUSS
After years of study, the latest environmental report looking at breaching the four dams along the Snake River from Ice Harbor near the Tri-Cities concluded that the best option was for the dams to remain.
But there is no certainty that the decision made to maintain the dams based on the study will stand. A coalition of environmental and fishing groups have petitioned the federal court to intervene for a sixth time.
"We believe Rep. Simpson's plan has the best of intentions, and it deserves to be vetted among Northwest stakeholder groups," said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a nonprofit representing utilities, farmers, businesses, and ports that rely on the Northwest's hydropower system.
But there are significant concerns, he said, including for the many families in the Northwest that rely on jobs that are dependent on the dams. They range from seasonal farm workers to riverboat operators.
"Any plan around dam removal must consider how we specifically support these families," Miller said. "As we've learned throughout the pandemic, a check from the government cannot make up for the loss of one's career."
Any decision to take out the dams would affect nearly every person in the Tri-Cities area, which relies on the low-cost and the reliable electricity delivery that the dams have made possible.
"The clean, renewable power generated by the dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers supplies half of the Pacific Northwest's energy and is critical for a reliable power grid," said the Congressional resolution. "Without it, life as we know it in our region would cease to exist."
Simpson's proposal would provide $10 billion for new power generation facilities to replace the production of the four dams from Ice Harbor near the Tri-Cities upriver to near Lewiston, Idaho. It would also provide $2 billion for changes and improvements to the grid that delivers electricity, including to the Tri-Cities.
But Northwest RiverPartners said it appears to make a risky bet that new technologies will be ready to replace the proven technology of hydropower.
Under a suggested timeline, new generation would need to be ready to start replacing hydropower within a decade.
With a move toward clean energy in the Northwest, the replacement generation could include new small modular nuclear reactors, which could be based in the Tri-Cities.
It also would likely include wind and solar production paired with battery storage to make sure electricity is available when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.
But neither small modular reactors nor the type of batteries needed for long-term to store wind and solar energy in the Northwest remain under development.
Currently, battery storage is available but is generally used for storing electricity for a few hours. The Northwest likely would need new kinds of battery storage to provide constant power for much longer periods, such as winter cold snaps when the wind may not blow for days.
"We welcome the advancement of these technologies, but the region's electric customers should not be made reliant on technological breakthroughs to keep the lights on," Miller said.
Planning and building just a single power plant now can take a decade to build, said Rick Dunn, Benton PUD general manager.
The Northwest already is facing potential electric reliability issues as coal plants are being taken out of service, he said.
"We know that our region will need gigawatts of additional power to avoid brownouts and blackouts," said Reeploeg, with TRIDEC. "We should be investing in new energy generation regardless, not just as part of a package that includes breaching the dams. In fact, removing the dams would only create bigger energy challenges."
The Northwest will need to replace 3,000 megawatts of electricity production from coal generation in 10 years.
Also replacing the 3,000-megawatt capacity of the Snake River dams in a decade is "unbelievably aggressive," Dunn said. "It is a risky proposition."
The dams not only provide 10% of the baseload generating ability for the 135 customer electric utilities of the Bonneville Power Administration, but also provides 25% of BPA's operating reserves, he said.
Operating reserves allow quick action when power lines or generators go offline to prevent a cascading series of events that could end in blackouts.
Simpson's proposal is worth discussion, but removing the dams would provide a huge challenge even if the grid was on a a stable trajectory, Dunn said.
While the plan calls for replacing hydropower production with clean energy sources, replacing the system of barging wheat and other products up and down the Snake River would increase carbon emissions.
The system of locks and dams makes it possible for barges to navigate the Snake River from the Tri-Cities to the Lewiston-Clarkston area.
Shipments now sent by barge would likely be transported by truck and rail, not only significantly increasing carbon emissions but increasing injuries and fatalities, said Kristin Meira, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.
Barging also helps to keep a check on rail and trucking rates, ensuring the price of moving goods in the Pacific Northwest remains competitive, said Joseph Anderson, chairman of the Idaho Wheat Commission.
Simpson's proposal includes a $1 billion fund for waterways shippers and transportation, plus $300 million for road and rail improvements.
The Tri-Cities ports have been held up as benefactors of the plan, which includes $600 million to further develop the Tri-Cities into a transportation hub.
But Randy Hayden, Port of Pasco executive director, questions whether shippers would want to transfer goods already heading toward the coast by truck or rail to a barge at the Tri-Cities.
The transfer cost would add expense and time, and short haul rail rarely works, he said.
"I think we will see a lot more truck traffic coming through the Tri-Cities but it won't necessarily stop here. It will just be clogging our highways," including through the Columbia River Gorge, he said.
The Port of Pasco, which has been greatly successful at attracting food processing companies, also is concerned dam removal will crush industrial recruitment efforts.
"We rely on that power," Hayden said. "Our large industries that we talk to, when they come here they expect they are going to be able to run their plants."
About 91,000 acres is irrigated with pump stations designed to work with the Lower Snake River dams, and Simpson proposes $750 million for those irrigators.
The amount matches, and even provides some cushion, to what the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association previously said would be needed to address the economic impacts of removing the dams.
The association told Simpson it is "not going to throw rocks" at his proposal or get in the way of anything the Northwest Congressional delegation can reach agreement on, said Darryll Olsen, association board representative.
That's despite the association's stand in support of retaining the dams.
Olsen fears that U.S. Judge Michael Simon, who ordered the recently completed environmental study on dam removal, is preparing to eviscerate the findings of the study, which did not call for breaching the dams.
The judge's next step may be to order a plan and schedule to demolish the dams, although he lacks the authority to order them torn down, Olsen said.
And irrigators no longer have the power of the presidency on their side. They believe former President Donald Trump would not have allowed the dams to be removed.
Simpson's goal is rebuilding declining populations of Idaho fish.
But even he admits that breaching the dams is not a sure solution.
Endangered fish face challenges that include ocean conditions and global climate change that has contributed to river and reservoir temperatures warming to temperatures unsuitable for salmon.
"Only four of the 13 ESA (Endangered Species Act) listed salmon runs even swim past the lower Snake River dams and they do so with over 95% transit survival," said Mike Carstensen, chairman of the Washington Grain Commission.
It's a percentage that other supporters of keeping the dams have agreed is correct, at least for each dam.
"Given the Pacific Coast-wide declines in salmon survival in both dammed and undammed rivers, it is hard to make the case that breaching dams with advanced fish passage technology will reverse this disturbing trend," said Miller with Northwest RiverPartners.
"If sustainable salmon populations don't return to the Snake River, U.S. taxpayers will have footed the bill to the tune of tens of billions of dollars to end up with a larger carbon footprint than we have today," he said.
However the Yakama Nation, which has treaty rights to salmon in the Columbia River Basin, applauded Simpson for his proposal.
It said that federal dams have devastated its ability to take full benefit of its fishing rights.
"We have reached a tipping point where we must choose between our treaty-protected salmon and the federal dams, and we choose salmon," said Delano Saluskin, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council.
Dams and salmon can, and do, coexist in the Northwest, Newhouse said.
"The extensive, world-class research and technological advances occurring at the Lower Snake River dams is already leading the way for significantly improved fish passage rates." he argued. "We have seen tremendous progress, and I will continue to support efforts to improve salmon survivability."
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