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Congress members dive into Northwest dams debate

A blue river goes diagonally through the picture, from top left to bottom right. A grey dam sits diagonally in the middle of the river. White water spills over the dams. In the bottom left hand corner and top right hand corner of the picture are brown scrub land and brown roads.
Bonneville Power Administration
Four congress members listened to testimony about whether the four Lower Snake River dams, including Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities, should stay in place or be removed.

At a Congressional hearing in Richland, Wash., designed to defend the four Lower Snake River dams against calls for removal, a panel of nine people testified about the economic, agricultural and power benefits of dams.

The hearing Monday came after four Republican members of Congress toured Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., organized the hearing on dams, calling them the “lifeblood of the Northwest.”

“We simply cannot afford to lose (the dams),” Newhouse said during a five-minute opening statement.

Newhouse and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., both represent districts that include the Snake River dams. They recently introduced legislation to prevent dam breaching while improving and maintaining existing hydropower infrastructure.

Debate over the four dams in southeastern Washington has often pitted salmon survival against the benefits the dams provide, from transportation to energy generation to irrigation. Several reports have found the dams should be removed to protect endangered salmon. However, according to the reports, those benefits first need to be replaced.

Nine people testified during the Congressional hearing on the ground in Richland, mostly in favor of keeping the dams. Tribal representatives and fish advocates, which both call for removing the dams, were not included in the witness panel. No Democratic member of Congress spoke at the hearing.

Scott Corbitt, general manager of the Port of Lewiston, said his town’s economy and community will dry up if the dams are removed.

“To us, they are truly irreplaceable. Unfortunately dam removal proponents and people who live hundreds of miles from Lewiston make it sound as if their loss is really no big deal and that’s because to them, we really are expendable,” Corbitt said to applause.

The barges that transport grain and crops to and from Lewiston are equally important for farmers, Colfax farmer Alex McGregor testified.

The dams create a marine superhighway, he said, and barge transportation is crucial for farmers who are up against the clock.

“There’s railroad time and then there’s real time. Railroad is important, but it’s really vital to have the shipment by barge when you’re up against it,” McGregor said.

In addition, the dams provide carbon-free energy for the region, said Rick Dunn, general manager of the Benton Public Utility District, based in Kennewick.

“We need every drop of carbon-free power we can get,” Dunn said, referring to state renewable energy goals and climate change.

An independent analysis released last year by the Bonneville Power Administration found it is possible to replace the dams as carbon-free emerging technologies become available. However, that could cost $11.2 billion to $19.6 billion. The analysis showed emerging technologies, like small modular reactors and floating offshore wind turbines, aren’t commercially available yet.

Carbon-free power generated by the dams helped keep the region’s lights on and air conditioners and heaters running during extreme weather events, like the 2021 heat dome that smashed high temperature records, said John Hairston, Bonneville Power Administration CEO.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said the four dams saved lives during recent extreme weather.

“The Lower Snake River dams are an easy target, but they are not the problem,” McMorris Rodgers said.

The problems are multifaceted, she said, ranging from predators like sea lions and birds to poor ocean conditions, habitat loss and dams without fish passage.

After the hearing, wild salmon advocates said they were disappointed to not be included in the conversation. Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said the testimony didn’t work to find solutions, calling the hearing a “missed opportunity.”

“This hearing showed no indication of trying to engage different viewpoints and figure out how we can meet the needs of the communities and make some transitions that are going to provide a future for salmon and the replaceable benefits the dams provide for our region,” Bogaard said.

Kat Brigham, Board of Trustees chair for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said she was glad to listen and hear other viewpoints.

“We need to be working together to find a solution,” she said. “I've said many times, either you're part of the problem, or you're part of the solution. And we are trying to be a part of the solution. I'm hoping someday we'll be able to have a panel, and they'll come to listen to us.”

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.