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Commentaries and editorials

WA Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee are Trying to
Answer the Wrong Question About Snake Dams

by Kurt Miller
Tri-City Herald, November 18, 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. Over the past 10 months, we've seen the most fervent activity in the region's history surrounding the lower Snake River dams. And that's saying something, as disagreements about the dams have been ongoing since their construction in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in the polite Pacific Northwest, debate over these dams has at times been less-than-civil, and the dams have been at the center of ongoing litigation for the past two decades.

But, the past 10 months have been especially noteworthy. We've had a Republican Congressman float a $33.5 billion replacement plan, a major political campaign targeting Washington and Oregon's U.S. Senators, and a bevy of announcements from different officials around litigation, settlements, and stakeholder processes.

My organization, Northwest RiverPartners, represents communities across the Pacific Northwest that get their electricity from hydropower, and we believe there has never been a more important time to step up in defense of productive hydropower dams that provide zero-carbon, reliable, and low-cost energy.

Clearly, we believe the lower Snake River dams should remain in place, but we respect those who hold different views on this topic, including many of the region's Native American tribes. Most especially, we concur that Native American tribes deserve the salmon that were promised in their respective treaties with the US government.

While hydroelectricity is central to our mission, our original name was the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery. Our values have always been closely tied to healthy salmon populations; the question is what is the best way to get there.

An excellent article from the Associated Press illustrates the complexity of the question. The article chronicles the struggles of Alaska's Yukon River Tribes, given the dearth of Chinook salmon returning to their native rivers. One quote in particular caught my attention:

"Everyone wants to know, 'What is the one smoking gun? What is the one thing we can point to and stop?' People are reluctant to point to climate change because there isn't a clear solution... but it's probably the biggest factor here," said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, Alaska Venture Fund's program director for fisheries and communities.

Because the Yukon River is largely undammed and undeveloped, it leaves us with the conclusion so many are reluctant to face --climate change is the true cause of these declines. We are seeing near-uniform Chinook salmon survival declines along the Northwest American West Coast.

This gets us to WA Senator Patty Murray and WA Governor Jay Inslee's recent joint quest to determine whether, "the services provided by the lower Snake River dams can be replaced."

We propose a more important question: Is it wise, in the context of climate change, to dig a deeper decarbonization hole for the Pacific Northwest, especially when it comes to salmon?

Alarmingly, close to 40% of our region's generation still comes from fossil-fueled power plants, and recent reports conclude the nation and the world are falling dangerously behind in achieving critical carbon reduction levels. Meanwhile, the region's leading salmon science group, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, found no evidence in the data to demonstrate the lower Snake River dams are responsible for poor salmon return rates. ””

As an organization, we find ourselves often focused on the fight over these four dams, but the truth is we'd much rather invest that time and energy into real, collaborative solutions for salmon and on optimizing our hydroelectric resources for Northwest communities. But, it will take more voices to speak up for the hydropower system if we hope to preserve the environmental and socioeconomic benefits it brings to our region.

One of my favorite quotes is quite fitting here; "Courage is feeling fear -- not getting rid of fear -- and taking action in the face of fear." As we work together as a region to solve the critical issues of salmon recovery and the decarbonization of our grid, we must remember that climate change, our biggest threat, isn't too big a foe if we face it together.

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

Kurt Milleris the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners (NWRP) -- a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest. Its diverse members include consumer-owned utilities, ports, and businesses from across the northwestern United States, and it encourages science-based solutions that help hydropower and salmon coexist and thrive.
WA Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee are Trying to Answer the Wrong Question About Snake Dams
Tri-City Herald, November 18, 2021

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