After an outcry from some of its members, Orcas Power & Light Cooperative agreed in December to revisit its support of lower Snake River dams at its Feb. 20 board meeting.

The electric cooperative, which delivers electricity to 20 San Juan County islands, was one of 27 publicly owned utilities in Washington state to adopt a resolution since last summer opposing removal of the lower Snake River dams.

In a Dec. 23 news release, OPALCO said "18 co-op members participated in an emotionally charged discussion about Resolution 2-2019 regarding the lower Snake River dams and ocean health." The board agreed to "put the brakes" on the resolution until it considers the issues with more participation from membership, it says.

The two-page resolution previously adopted by the board states that the Federal Columbia River Power System is "in large part responsible for the clean air, water and lands enjoyed by millions in the Pacific Northwest."

"BPA has identified the four Lower Snake River Dams as critical components of the FCRPS mission of supporting peak power generation and removing over 2,000 megawatts of firm winter capacity generated by the four Lower Snake River Dams would add to a forecasted Northwest shortfall in energy capacity," the resolution states.

The co-op directors resolved "to support the continued operation of the FCRPS, including the four Lower Snake River dams for the many benefits they provide including emissions-free, renewable, reliable, low-cost energy." It also supports effective actions to restore salmon runs "as determined from existing and future [biological opinions]," and supports effective actions to save resident orcas in the Salish Sea.

"Everyone in this room cares deeply about the health of our environment and a sustainable way forward," OPALCO board President Vince Dauciunas said at the December meeting, according to the release.

The release also says OPALCO's primary concerns are for the availability of clean sources of electricity, and its ability to provide power to the islands it serves.

"The Board must have confidence that there are adequate alternate resources for clean and reliable power in the region—including the realities of coal plants shutting down by 2025 and the mandate for all utilities to be carbon-free by 2040 (which requires firming sources of power when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine)," the release states.

Just before retiring in November, Debbie Bone-Harris, senior public affairs manager for Franklin County PUD, told NW Fishletter about a growing concern by public-power utilities across Washington over the prospect of removing four lower Snake River dams. She provided resolutions adopted by boards and commissions of 27 electric cooperatives and PUDs that support those dams, and oppose removing or breaching them.

The utilities join some Washington cities—such as Richland and Asotin—where councils have also adopted resolutions and sent letters supporting the dams. Richland operates an electric utility that receives 98 percent of its electricity from the Federal Columbia River Power System, its resolution states.

The resolutions are part of a public-information effort about the importance of the dams, and to voice concerns to public officials about new calls for breaching them, she said.

Bone-Harris said she believes a major misconception among many who support dam removal is that taking out these dams would be similar in scope to other dams breached across the West. Because of that, she said, assumptions are made about benefits to salmon and steelhead while little thought is given to the detrimental impacts to reliability and flexibility of the Northwest's power grid, or to the importance of the dams as a carbon-free resource.

"People think they are these tiny, little dams, like the [former] Elwha [in Washington state]," she said. "They don't realize that we've got to have these dams for intermittency to back up wind and solar, and that we've got to have them for stability of the grid."

In general, the public-power utilities pushing back against removal say eliminating the lower Snake River dams would hurt their ability to provide reliable, efficient, clean and affordable power to their customers. Some state they endorse the position that hydroelectric dams and salmon can coexist.

Like OPALCO's, many of the resolutions cite growing concerns over shortfalls in energy capacity. Many also point to Washington state's Clean Energy Transformation Act, passed earlier this year as Senate Bill 5116, which calls for 100 percent of all retail energy sales to come from carbon-free resources by 2045, and includes existing hydropower as an eligible resource for utilities seeking compliance with the clean energy requirement.

In addition, the resolutions say the potential of the dams to help prevent huge cost increases after an Energy and Environmental Economics study found that the cost of achieving 100 percent clean energy "leads to exponential cost increases and is impractical due to massive renewable overbuilds."

While Washington is considered a national and world leader in environmental stewardship, removing the dams would damage Washington's role as a leader in clean energy production, some of the resolutions state.

They also state that the 31 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers provide a reliable source of clean energy for hundreds of thousands of residents, and are largely responsible for the clean air, water and lands throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The lower Snake River dams, the resolutions note, produce 1,000 average megawatts of carbon-free power each year, serving nearly a half-million Northwest businesses, industries and households. The Bonneville Power Administration has identified them as critical components of the system, they are among the least expensive to operate, and they provide some of the greatest value for customers, the resolutions state.

They also state Bonneville has spent over $17 billion on infrastructure and fish mitigation since 1978; that the investments have successfully improved fish runs; and that poor returns in 2017 and 2018 can be attributed to ocean conditions.

Many of the resolutions begin by stating the utility's power-supply reliance on the Federal Columbia River Power System, ranging from 55 to 100 percent, with most getting between 85 and 95 percent of their power from BPA.

Washington state PUDs adopting resolutions include Asotin, Benton, Chelan, Cowlitz, Ferry, Franklin, Grays Harbor, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lewis, Mason 1, Mason 3, Okanogan, Pacific, Skamania and Wahkiakum.

In addition to OPALCO, the electric cooperatives adopting resolutions include Benton REA, Big Bend Electric, Clearwater Power, Columbia REA, Inland Power, Lakeview Light & Power, Modern Electric Water, OHOP Mutual Light, Parkland Water & Light and Tanner Electric.

The Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Energy Northwest also signed resolutions supporting the dams.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.