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Washington state residents divided on removal of dams

March 11, 2020 - 2:55 PM

SPOKANE, Wash. - People in Washington state remain sharply divided on whether four federal hydroelectric dams along the Snake River should be removed to help endangered salmon and orca recover, a state report concluded.

The final version of the report said the dams bring benefits and liabilities to the region, and there is no clear consensus in the state on whether they should be retained.

"'They have boosted the economy and local communities in southeast Washington but have also harmed tribal and fishing communities throughout the Pacific Northwest,'' said the report, released by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The contentious issue of removing the dams has been kicking around the Northwest for a couple of decades, and largely breaks along political lines. Republicans tend to favour keeping the dams, while Democrats tend to be more open to removing them.

The Legislature last spring appropriated $750,000 to study the dams, which are blamed by many for declining salmon runs in the Columbia-Snake river system. The salmon are a key food source for killer whales, which are listed as endangered.

Inslee's office was still reviewing the final report and declined to comment Wednesday, spokesman Mike Faulk said.

The report is intended to help state lawmakers decide how to respond to the recent federal review of the dams. That draft report rejected the idea of removing the four dams and called for spilling more water through the dams during periods when salmon are migrating. That tactic has long been used, with little success at reviving wild runs of salmon.

The state report said the public has significantly different views of the impact of breaching the dams on salmon, orca, transportation, agriculture and economics.

“”More information is needed to create opportunities for greater understanding,'' the state report said.

For instance, many communities in southeastern Washington were built and have prospered because of inexpensive power provided ny the dams, the report said. It also notes the Pacific Northwest has a surplus of power and the four dams may not be needed to meet energy needs.

The team that wrote the state report did not try to reconcile different perspectives, or determine which side was right, the report said.

"Salmon, orca, agriculture and energy are fundamental to Washington's past and future,'' the report said, noting the four dams have involved all those issues since they were constructed more than four decades ago.

The four dams are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. All are located on the Snake River between the Tri-Cities of Washington and Lewiston, Idaho.

The dams generate roughly enough power to supply the city of Seattle for a year, and allow navigation of barges between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities, and eventually to Pacific ports.

All species of salmon in the Snake River are listed as threatened or endangered and the dams are the biggest man-made obstacles they face, the report said.

The dams block fish migration, change river conditions and reduce the survival rate of fish that get chewed up in the turbines, the report said. That creates losers among fishing communities and Indian tribes who depend on salmon.

Supporters of breaching the dams say it is the only method that has not been tried to increase salmon populations, the report said. About $17 billion has been spent on other efforts to increase salmon runs, the report said, “without reversing the downward population trend.”

Supporters of breaching the dams say the power they provide primarily acts as a reserve supply, and the electricity is generally not used to meet primary energy demands.

But people who support keeping the dams say losing the power would hurt the state's goal of being carbon free by 2045, especially as the population grows and coal plants are retired.

Breaching the dams would also eliminate the use of barges to transport agricultural products down the river, the report said. Barges are cleaner and cheaper than truck or rail transportation, the report said.

The dams provide irrigation water for some farmland, and that benefit would also be lost if the dams are breached, the report said.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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