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Hydropower Advocate Crosses
Swords with Anti-Dam Activists

by Don Jenkins
Capital Press, June 30, 2023

Hydropower gives Washington a head-start on being "carbon free."

Graphic: Recent Downriver Grain Shipments on the Snake River (2000 - 2019) VANCOUVER, Wash. -- It's easy to believe Kurt Miller, friendly and quick to smile, when he says, "I'm not a contentious person by nature."

And yet, he contends. As executive director of Northwest River Partners, advocates for hydropower, he disputes anti-dam activists, particularly ones campaigning to breach the four Lower Snake River dams.

Although Miller says, "Our organization is bigger than the Snake River dams," an interview in his office mostly leads back to Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

Public utility districts and allies such as the Oregon Farm Bureau, Washington Farm Bureau and Washington State Potato Commission belong to River Partners. All have an interest in the region's network of dams.

Although Miller says the organization is "bigger than the Snake River dams," an interview in his office mostly leads back to Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

If the four dams are like dominos, what happens if they fall?

"I definitely think the four Lower Columbia River dams would be targeted next," Miller said.

"If you can make false statements to get rid of the Lower Snake River dams, you can make false statements to get rid of any dam," he said. "The narrative is applied to all the dams."

Miller contends proponents of breaching overstate the benefits to fish and orcas, while downplaying the contribution the dams, and hydropower in general, make to reducing greenhouse gases.

Even if the anti-dam activists can't get the dams removed, they might be able to force dam operators to hold back less water, making the dams less useful as sources of on-demand energy, he said.

"I think the long-term strategy for these groups is to continue to constrain the dams so much that they're not cost-effective," Miller said.

Miller, 53, joined River Partners in 2019 after working at Bonneville Power Administration and then 20 years at Portland General Electric. River Partners has two employees, Miller and media specialist Austin Rohr.

On behalf of the group's members, Miller and Rohr defend hydropower. Hydropower provides affordable and carbon-free energy, which is great if you care about low-income people and climate change, Miller argues.

Washington generates more hydroelectricity than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It's not close. Oregon, No. 2 in the country, generates less than half.

Because of hydropower, Washington has the second least-carbon intensive economy in the U.S., making it easier for policymakers to be green. Hydropower gives Washington a head-start on being "carbon free."

Hydropower also gave the Northwest reliable and relatively cheap electricity. The region's electric grid is the envy of the country, but you wouldn't know it by living here, Miller said.

He cites what has happened to natural gas, once seen as the low-carbon alternative to coal. While he was at PGE, the utility agreed to close Oregon's only coal plant, in Boardman.

"All of a sudden natural gas became the enemy," Miller said. "What I learned was people have to stay on top of the political dynamics because the narrative can change really quick.

"You have to inform the narrative for the resource you want to keep."

The Snake River dams were controversial even before Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson ceremonially pushed a button on June 1, 1957, to get the concrete sluicing for Ice Harbor Dam, the first to be built.

The Western Association of Game and Fish Commissioners, which represented 11 Western states, had passed a resolution five years earlier opposing Ice Harbor Dam.

In a major study, the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration concluded in 2020 that breaching the dams would have long-term benefit for fish.

The federal agencies rejected breaching, however. The dams make the electric grid more reliable and cut carbon emissions. Without the dams, wheat barged downriver would have to be moved by trucks and trains.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., later authorized a study on removing the dams. When it was done, Murray said the dams shouldn't be breached until their benefits were replaced.

Washington taxpayers are about to pay for more Snake River dam studies, even though dam breaching is a federal decision and one that affects several states. Montana state lawmakers this year passed a resolution opposing breaching. "We object to the premise that Washington gets to decide what happens to federal dams," Miller said.

Miller said he doubts Congress will approve breaching the dams, especially considering Murray's position. Yet, the battle will go on, he said.

Anti-dam advocates have urged President Biden to breach the dams by executive order. As commander-in-chief, he can order the Army Corps of Engineers to breach the dams, a recent law review article argued.

Biden devoted one paragraph to the Columbia River in a speech he gave at the White House in March on his environmental priorities. The president misspoke, saying "Colorado" when he meant "Columbia."

Miller was more interested that Biden said he was committed to working with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to bring "healthy and abundant salmon runs back" to the Columbia River system.

Simpson has proposed dam breaching, while "healthy and abundant" echoes breaching advocates. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., interpreted the remarks as Biden being committed to tearing down the dams.

On the other hand, White House senior adviser John Podesta in May praised hydropower and said approving hydropower projects took too long. "It's time to reform the process so we can keep this crucial energy source on line," he said.

Miller said he doesn't know exactly what the Biden administration's position is on breaching the dams.

"We need to do a lot of tea-leaf reading," he said. "We're not sure where these guys are going to land."

Meanwhile, there is the secretive "mediation" between federal agencies and environmental organizations that sued over how the dams are operated.

Miller agrees with Republican lawmakers who say closed-door negotiations are a poor way to resolve issues that impact millions of people, but River Partners intervened in the lawsuit is sworn to secrecy.

"There's always something going on where groups are trying to get rid of the Lower Snake River dams," Miller said. "I'm not sure what's coming next.

"The game can't be over if the other side doesn't stop fighting."

Don Jenkins
Hydropower Advocate Crosses Swords with Anti-Dam Activists
Capital Press, June 30, 2023

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