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COLUMN: Save Our Snake River Dams

July 11, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

In the Inland Northwest, it is difficult to overstate the benefits of water infrastructure and hydropower projects along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Harnessing the power of the rivers has been a central challenge in the Pacific Northwest, but it has been necessary to support our way of life. When the rivers overflow their banks, catastrophic floods have resulted in tragic loss of life and incredible amount of property damage. The dams along the Columbia and its largest tributary, the Snake, have sought to tame Mother Nature so that communities can coexist with and benefit from nature.

In spring and early summer of 1948, the lower Columbia overflowed its banks in a disastrous flood that caused extensive property damage and took the lives of 51 people. The 1948 floods caused an estimated $100 million in damage, which would roughly equal $1 billion in 2017 dollars when considering inflation. The town of Vanport, Oregon, was completely destroyed. Taming the rivers through damming has been a monumental effort, but the benefits go even beyond flood control.

In addition to flood control, the lower four Snake River dams provide important irrigation, navigation, and hydroelectric assets. The dams provide enough clean, renewable hydropower to provide electricity for the equivalent of 800,000 homes. Last November, hundreds of local residents, including myself, made our voices heard at an Environmental Impact Statement public scoping meeting in Pasco to oppose the removal of the Snake River dams. Studying and breaching the dams would cost taxpayers an estimated $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion. Replacing this source of energy would create an annual cost of between $274 million and $372 million. Breaching the dams would also increase the region’s carbon dioxide emissions by between 2 and 2.6 million metric tons annually – the equivalent of 421,000 more cars on our roads every year.

Why does the removal debate continue despite the dams’ many clear benefits and local support? In 2016, a federal judge in Portland ruled that the existing Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp), which regulates operations of the 14 federal dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers, did not adequately consider the protection of ESA-listed salmon. The judge ordered that a redeveloped plan include consideration of breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River despite the enormous efforts and resources dedicated to mitigate the dams’ effect on fish. The judge’s decision seems to ignore that the Bonneville Power Administration has spent $15 billion on fish survival efforts, paid for by ratepayers. These efforts have been proven to improve fish survival rates.

Last week, I joined my Pacific Northwest colleagues Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Kurt Schrader, and Greg Walden to introduce bipartisan legislation to approve the existing Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) until 2022. We are joining together seeking to preserve our dams because removing them would harm our communities that depend on their irrigation, navigation, environmental, power generation, and economic benefits. We are working to save our dams.