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NW Fishletter #386, Oct. 2, 2018

[11] Economic Benefits of Hydropower Praised at U.S. House Hearing

Two weekend gatherings--one pushing for removal of the lower Snake River dams and the other celebrating them--culminated on Sept. 10 with a Congressional hearing in Pasco, Wash., that focused on the economic benefits of the Federal Columbia River Power System.

After hundreds of people gathered over the weekend for either the Free the River Flotilla in Clarkston, Wash., or for RiverFest 2018 in Kennewick, Wash., the two-hour hearing--titled, "The Federal Columbia River Power System: The Economic Lifeblood & Way of Life for the Pacific Northwest"--highlighted the many benefits of the hydropower system, its importance in history, and this year's Congressional attempts to help address some of its problems, including constant litigation over biological opinions developed to mitigate for losses of endangered salmon and steelhead at its dams.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who requested the field hearing in his home district, captured the spirit of the hearing--and the opposing celebrations that preceded it--with quotes that go to the heart of the issue, written by a UCLA scientist that Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, had previously entered into the committee hearing record.

Writing that, while there is no doubt that the Snake River dams have caused salmon declines, after spending billions of dollars to improve them, "it is not certain that dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river," Peter Kareiva, director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability explained in his 2017 book, Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma.

"The problem is that a complex species and river management issue had been reduced to a simple symbolic battle--a battle involving a choice between evil dams and the certain loss of an iconic species. . . . It has become clear that salmon conservation is being used as a 'means to an end' [dam removal] as opposed to an 'end' of its own accord," Newhouse said, reading quotes from the book.

The hearing included testimony from people invited by the committee to represent the BPA, Bonneville ratepayers, wheat growers, power trade, barge transportation, and the business community.

And while pro-dam constituents dominated the witness list, voices from tribal and fishing interests were included with McCoy Oatman, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, and Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Spain told the committee that the Columbia River is also the lifeblood for fishermen. The industry, he said, generates $500 million-$600 million a year in the wholesale value of fish, generating more than $1.25 billion to the region in economic benefits. "That's only a fraction of the potential for the river," he said, noting that an estimated 10 million to 16 million fish that once returned to the basin have been reduced to between 1.2 million and 2.5 million.

Testifying on the fishing industry's objections to H.R. 3144, Spain quoted from an Aug. 16, 2017, letter signed by 47 scientists and fishery managers, who wrote that they "reaffirm the benefits of spill for salmon and steelhead of the Snake/Columbia river basin as an essential interim measure awaiting a legally valid scientifically credible long-term plan."

The scientists and fish managers wrote that they support an immediate increase in spill levels, noting "With existing dams in place, spill offers the best potential to improve life-cycle survival."

Flores disputed the benefits of spill in her testimony, stating, "There is no proof that more spill will be better for salmon," she said, and added that NOAA Fisheries science center modeling shows that this year's added spill will have "little to no impact on salmon survival."

Flores said that RiverPartners supports salmon restoration actions that are based on sound science. "Sadly, I'm here today to tell you that decisions surrounding the operation of the federal hydropower system and endangered salmon that affect every person in the Northwest are currently not being made based in sound science or cost effectiveness, but by a district court judge in Portland, Oregon," she said. "And, anti-dam forces are once again trying to make the Snake River dams a scapegoat in salmon, and now orca, restoration efforts."

She said the federal hydropower system is at great risk due to 20 years of litigation that has derated the system already by over 1,000 MW, and has increased Bonneville's rates roughly 30 percent in the last few years, "created huge uncertainty over how the federal hydrosystem will be operated, and at what cost, even next year."

Flores also addressed the issue of Snake River dam removal, saying that some groups are pushing it as the "silver bullet" for the basin's salmon recovery effort. "It is a false premise, but a powerful fundraising tool for some of these organizations," she said before quoting the same excerpts from Kareiva's book that Newhouse later reiterated in closing the hearing.

Oatman said he understands those in the room who were there to represent benefits of the federal hydropower system for their constituents. "I am here to speak for those that are not here yet--those that are unborn--and to ensure that they have a way of life past the time I am here," he said. Oatman noted that the Nez Perce didn't sign the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, as other tribes have. "The other tribes don't live above all these dams," he said. And while the Nez Perce have had their day in court, he said they want to continue in a collaborative fashion.

"This hearing is really important. It's really important to hear from all parties, but also the Nez Perce, who have been here for tens of thousands of years," he said. "I want to continue that future for my people. For my children. . . . And so it is my battle here today to ensure that there will be fish in the waters for them."

The hearing began with strong pro-dam statements from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans; Newhouse (R-Wash.), who was at home in his 4th Congressional District; and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who sponsored H.R. 3144, a bill to roll back the court-ordered spring spill and enable federal agencies to operate under the 2014 biological opinion until a new environmental impact statement is completed.

The bill passed the House in April, and has yet to see action in the Senate. A rider in the 2018 Energy and Water Resources Appropriations Bill that would have eliminated the increased spill obligation next year, was removed in the Senate's version of the appropriations bill. Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers are former members of the House committee.

Between the three, praises for the federal hydrosystem were many.

"What often gets lost in the conversation inside the beltway is the impact that this federal infrastructure has on the lives of real people, and the immense value the Federal Columbia River Power System creates for the region," Lamborn said. He harkened back to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, noting construction of Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams was a centerpiece.

Lamborn quoted Roosevelt's 1937 Bonneville Dam dedication speech. "He stated that 'in the construction of this dam, we have had our eyes on the future of the nation. Its cost will be returned to the people of the United States many times over, in the improvement of navigation and transportation, the cheapening of electrical power, and the distribution of this power to hundreds of small communities within a great radius.'"

Lamborn talked about the role that hydroelectric power played during World War II, including a quote from President Harry Truman, "who stated that 'had we not had that power source, it would have been almost impossible to win that war.'"

He went on to say that only since the early 1990s has the federal hydrosystem become an issue, and promised, "Those of us in Congress owe it to you all here today to make good on the promises of the past, and to do everything we can to protect this critical infrastructure that makes possible the way of life in the Pacific Northwest."

Newhouse said he requested the hearing to coincide with the annual RiverFest celebration "because I believe it's important that Congress is educated about how vital our federal river system is to the Pacific Northwest." Newhouse talked about its importance to farming from irrigated lands, to navigation by getting the region's many products to port in an export-driven economy, to flood control for the region's communities, and to providing clean, renewable and affordable power that supports the thriving recreational, manufacturing and technology industries.

"Unfortunately, in my opinion, misguided movements continue to push for the destruction or degradation of our river power system," he said.

Newhouse talked about how, after years of collaboration with stakeholders, states and tribes, and with the support of both the Bush and Obama administrations to develop a new biological opinion, "a single federal judge in 2016 overturned the plan which governs the operations and salmon protection management plans for the river system."

He noted that the judge is forcing many of the projects to spill water to maximum levels, and federal agencies to consider breaching the four lower Snake River dams it their next biological opinion.

He concluded by saying, "I will not stop working on behalf of this vital system. It is my hope, for this hearing today, that a national audience will learn more about the myriad of benefits this system provides, and how our rivers truly do provide for our way of life."

McMorris Rodgers spoke to the specifics of those benefits.

She said the four lower Snake River dams generate enough electricity to power nearly two million homes--a city the size of Seattle. All together, the state's hydropower provides almost 70 percent of the state's electricity needs, she said. "And, they provide reliable baseload, important energy to meet BPA's peak loads during the hottest days of summer, when the wind doesn't blow, or in the winter, when the sun doesn't shine."

She said the dams have also transformed sagebrush into prime farmland, and its barging system transports those crops for Washington state's No. 1 industry--agriculture.

Washington state, she said, is the most trade-dependent state in the country," she said, with 40 percent of jobs tied to trade. The river's barge system offers an efficient, cost-effective and low-carbon means of transportation. "It would take 174,000 semi trucks to move the goods which travel by barge each year. One barge equals 134 trucks," she said. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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