In this 2019 photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

In this 2019 photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Oregon governor calls for tearing out Snake River dams

Washington’s Republican representatives are outraged at the idea.

  • Annette Cary Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)
  • Saturday, February 15, 2020 5:44am
  • Northwest

By Annette Cary / Tri-City Herald

Oregon’s Democrat Gov. Kate Brown said removing the four lower Snake River dams in Washington state is the most certain way to boost salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia Basin.

She sent a letter to Washington’s Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee this week, offering her support — and outraging Washington state’s three Republican U.S. congressional representatives.

“Gov. Brown’s position is not only misguided, it is shocking and extreme,” said Reps. Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler, in a joint statement Friday afternoon.

“This is yet another example of state officials trying to interfere in the operation of critical federal infrastructure,” they said.

They will wait for the release of the federal environmental study of the Columbia and Snake river hydrosystems “before jumping to conclusions that would devastate our regional economy and local communities — including those in Oregon,” the said.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in Portland ordered the environmental study by federal agencies, and required it to include the option of tearing out the four Snake River Dams, after he concluded that not enough was being done to protect endangered fish in the Columbia Basin.

Salmon and steelhead recovery

The dams are from Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco upriver to Lower Granite Dam near Pomeroy.

The draft environmental study and recommendations, developed in collaboration with a variety of Oregon and Washington state agencies, is expected to be released in a matter of weeks.

“It is surprising to see a letter of this nature, expressing a position for the state of Oregon, for an extreme approach on the river system, prior to the release of the federal agencies’ proposed operations,” said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest WaterWays Association, a nonprofit trade association of ports, businesses and agencies that support navigation, trade and economic development.

Brown said the science already is clear that the “most certain and robust solution to Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery” is removing the Snake River dams. It would reduce direct and delayed mortality of the species, she said.

“No other action has the potential to improve overall survival two-to-three fold,” she said.

It would provide a “dramatic increase” of food for Pacific Coast orca that feed primarily on chinook, Brown said. They may forage off the mouth of the Columbia River while females are gestating in late winter.

“The imperilment of southern resident killer whales is a tragedy shared by all of us in the Pacific Northwest,” she said.

As movement is made toward dam removal in Washington state, steps should be taken to minimize or make up for potential harm to those who benefit from the dams, she said.

Oregon is ready to be an effective leader and partner in those efforts, Brown wrote.

Low-cost electricity from dams

The dams provide low-cost hydropower, and Tri-Cities-area electrical utilities say they are particularly important for preventing brown outs in the Tri-Cities during the coldest days of the year. Electricity demand is high then but the wind is not blowing to generate electricity with wind turbines.

The dams also allow the Snake and Columbia rivers to serve as the third largest grain export gateway in the world, with more than half of the wheat barged on the system passing through at least one of the lower Snake River dams.

And the Ice Harbor Dam reservoir supports reliable irrigation of 37,000 acres of farmland.

Those who advocate for retaining the Snaker River dams, including hydropower-supporter Northwest RiverPartners, say that nearly all rivers from southeast Alaska to southern Oregon are experiencing similar or worse trends in chinook salmon returns compared to the lower Columbia and lower Snake rivers, including rivers without dams.

The organization says that a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries analysis showed that chinook from rivers that feed into the Salish Sea are the top priority for salmon stock for southern resident orcas.

“(Brown’s) portrayal of the role and importance of the lower Snake River dams in the survival of the southern resident orcas is at odds with information available from NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for the recovery of both orcas and Chinook salmon,” Meira said.

Supporters of retaining the lower Snake River dams warn that if they are removed, the hydropower dams on the Columbia between Washington and Oregon will be the next target.

Brown said that Oregon and Washington can work together to improve an agreement on spill over Columbia hydrosystem dams to help endangered fish.

In addition, Oregon has the capacity to increase interim hatchery production of salmon for orcas without displacing existing wild salmon populations.

Oregon already has fish that will be available to orcas as soon as 2021, Brown said.

“I would like to partner with you to help ensure this initiative is fully funded and sustainable during the necessary interim period while long-term solutions are addressed,” she told Inslee.

Northwest RiverPartners said that it supports Brown’s near-term, practical suggestion for increased fish hatchery production, but cannot support her advocacy for tearing out dams as a long-term solution.

The state of Washington, under an initiative spearheaded by Inslee, has been gathering information on what Northwest residents think about breaching the lower Snake River dams, and the impacts pro and con of removing the dams.

A final report is expected in early March.

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