It was always going to come to this at some point, wasn't it?
The recent news bomblet that the Yakama and Lummi tribal nations dropped on the Pacific Northwest on Oct. 14 may have made for a "holy Chinook!" moment for those who don't closely follow the ins and outs of regional energy and environmental policy.
But viewed from a high-altitude and long-range perspective of those policies and the debates surrounding them, the tribes' call to remove three lower Columbia River dams (John Day, Bonneville and The Dalles)—complete with press releases, a press conference at an artfully chosen setting (the placid river in the foreground, transmission towers and lines in the distance) on an intentionally chosen day (Indigenous Peoples Day)—comes as little surprise.
It's a logical, almost inevitable waypoint in a debate that combines enough issues—climate change, salmon preservation, dam removal, the future of hydropower, tribal relations and treaty rights—to make for a combustible concoction sufficient to dramatically change and rearrange just about everything and everyone involved.
Unless, of course, the tribes didn't mean to be taken seriously or literally. Maybe it was a "hey, it's a slow news day, let's liven things up" moment to draw some attention to the tribe's issues by throwing an idea out there and seeing what happens. Maybe it was an effort to lay some groundwork for future negotiations—"We know the dams aren't going anywhere, but if we can put a sufficient scare into everyone we can leverage that to extract a cut of hydropower revenues," which would be a cynical but understandable, even clever ploy.
But another, more realistic reading suggests the Yakamas knew exactly what they were doing by holding the press conference at the site of Celilo Falls, the ancestral fishing and trading site flooded in 1957. Now that the idea is on the table, it's not going to be taken off. The initial fervor may dissipate a bit with so much else going on, but the suggestion of dam removal on the main stem of the Columbia can't now be unsuggested. That toothpaste is not getting pushed back into the tube.
That makes the Oct. 14 announcement a waypoint, not an endpoint. Presuming they meant what they said, the tribes are playing a long game, one with huge consequences for everyone involved.
That starts with the region's electric utilities, and not just the ones who directly depend upon BPA power from those three dams. A Klickitat elder quoted in a Northwest News Network account declared, "All the dams need to go."
Whether he meant all the Federal Columbia River Power System dams or hydro dams generally, the latter is the direction the debate is headed. The elder who called for dam removal cited the experience on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers in Washington. The debate has already moved well beyond removing dams that no longer serve a useful hydroelectric purpose. Next up are the four lower Snake River dams, which are still providing service for water transportation and power generation. The pressure is building to remove those to save the salmon and the orcas.
After that? It's long been presumed that the era of dam-building in the Northwest is over and done. Now it's the age of dam removal, and no one's project is likely to be absolved from scrutiny or calls for demolition. Hydro pumped-storage projects, which have been in the portfolio of options for the region's generating future, are also likely to be in jeopardy if they can be connected at all to salmon, treaty rights or both.
The Northwest's electric utilities have been energetically, and perhaps a bit nervously, seeing what might be coming, promoting hydropower as the clean, green, renewable alternative to coal and natural gas. It's never been an entirely comfortable fit, and with the tribes heightening attention to their objections hydro may be given a shove from under the protective banner of clean and renewable. For those utilities, then, the headaches will be political, legal, regulatory and operational—which they've already got, but at an exponentially greater pain threshold.
The environmental community, meanwhile, has some interesting calculations of its own to make. Even if its members hate hydro and wish it gone today, there's a concern that calling for removal of operating dams is a bridge-too-far-too-soon, given what the public's reaction might be (especially when they start seeing the impact to their bills as hydro gets taken out of the system).
Then again, the enviros may conclude "the public be damned. The courts will give us what we want eventually anyway."
Political leaders face some interesting dilemmas—go all in on one side or the other, at the risk of alienating a large part of the constituency, or try to straddle and finesse it, only to earn suspicion and scorn from both.
California, in the midst of its own electric-utility debacle, will be watching the course of the debate with interest, knowing that low-cost Northwest hydropower can come in handy in firming up its increasing dependence on renewables and to meet demand spikes. Of course, if you can't get the power over the last mile to those wishing to use it, what does it matter where it's coming from?
For the rest of the country, though, this isn't likely to register as much more than a "what those whack-job West Coastians are up to now" kind of story. It's not their part of the country, not their energy system and, as long as they're not paying for it, not their fight.
That leaves it to the region's various parties and participants to duke it out, and they will. The tribes have pushed the notion of pulling dams out of the Columbia into the center of the discussion about the Northwest's energy future, and now that it's there it will get plenty of support. It will also generate lots of opposition from those who argue for leaving the dams where they are doing what they do. Both sides will have no shortage of legitimate, powerful arguments.
It's the ultimate confrontation of irresistible force meeting immovable object. In that showdown, who ya got?