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Washington congressman, others ramp up fight to save lower Snake River dams

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(The Center Square) – A two-decade-long dispute over the lower Snake River dams is back in the headlines this month with a package of bills from U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., aimed at killing a December backroom deal between the Biden administration and a handful of stakeholders seeking to breach the four dams that provide hydropower to the region.

Last year’s deal between the Biden administration and the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Bonneville Power Administration and other government agencies that manage the dams has since become a formal memorandum of understanding.

Jason Mercier, vice president and director of research for the Mountain States Policy Center think tank, spoke with The Center Square about the fight over the dams’ fate.

“We have this consent decree that did not include all of the stakeholders, and as a result, you’re seeing a congressional backlash of hearings and now a package of nine bills introduced in the last couple of weeks to try to reassert that this is a congressionally authorized dam(s), and they’re not going away without an act of Congress,” Mercier explained.

The fight over the Snake River dams has been ongoing for more than 20 years, largely over salmon and steelhead restoration and other environmental concerns.

The four dams on the lower Snake River sit on the southeastern corner of Washington, near the Oregon border. The dams provide a reliable, affordable and stable supply of about 3,000 megawatts of electricity for the region.

For many years, the Bonneville Power Administration has been working with other agencies to mitigate concerns about the dams’ impact on Washington’s iconic fish.

Louis Finkel is the senior vice president of government relations for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

On a recent Along Those Lines podcast, Finkel said ratepayers have forked over “hundreds of millions of dollars each year for all sorts of mitigation measures and to allow for spillover, meaning more water is going over the dam or around the dam than through the electric turbine. There have been ongoing efforts to try to create opportunity for bringing back the salmon and steelhead population, and this has been done in a collaborative and transparent way.”

According to Mercier, transparency was not part of the backroom negotiations between the Biden administration and other stakeholders, and the only real consensus on the issue came in a 2020 scientific review of matters involving the Snake River dams and possible breaching.

“It was science-based and included all the stakeholders, like the Bureau of Reclamation and Corps of Engineers,” Mercier noted. “They looked at all the issues and determined you shouldn’t breach the dams because it would be counter to the goal of reliable and affordable power.”

Mercier concluded, “The study also said it will increase carbon emissions because you’d be replacing the barge traffic with either rail or truck.”

The study also predicted more traffic accidents and congestion and the need to spend millions of dollars annually on road upkeep if the dams are breached.

Implementation of the MOU between the Biden administration and select stakeholders to breach the Snake River dams won’t come without a fight in Congress.

“Congress authorized these dams, and only Congress has the power to remove them,” Mercier observed.

Newhouse’s package of bills aimed at saving the dams would prohibit the federal government from retiring an energy generation source if that retirement would raise customer electricity rates and decrease regional energy reliability by more than 10%.