The Cowlitz PUD commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to support “the continued operation” of four lower Snake River dams that some environmentalists and salmon advocates want breached.
“Hydropower is one of our most treasured resources in this state,” Commissioner David Quinn said. “It accounts for our way of life and our green environment. ... I certainly would not advise moving away from that.”
The four dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite — are located in Eastern Washington near the Oregon and Idaho borders. Together, they produce about 15 percent of the Columbia River power system’s entire hydroelectric output. Some conservationists argue the dams should be removed to assist dwindling salmon runs, while dam proponents say doing so would hamstring the region’s energy supply.
Commissioner Duane Dalgleish said the board “had to look out for the public” because the dams provide jobs and a wealth of on-demand energy. Commissioner Dena Diamond-Ott also raised concerns over how breaching the dams would complicate fulfilling the requirements of a clean energy bill that the Washington Legislature passed this year.
Had the PUD not had access to power from the dams during a natural gas shortage in March, “we would have been in a world of hurt” including brownouts or blackouts, Diamond-Ott said. Renewable resources like wind and solar aren’t ready to replace the dams, she said.
“This doesn’t stop the discussion,” Diamond-Ott said. “We take a stand today, because today, I don’t feel that there’s a better solution.”
Environmentalists have been trying for decades to get the federal government to tear down the dams, which they blame in part for reduced salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin. The debate was reinvigorated recently when the Washington Legislature agreed to pay $750,000 to study how to best help impacted communities if the dams are breached. Critics called it a waste of money because the issue has been under federal study for years.
Diane Dick, a Longview resident, asked the PUD commissioners on Tuesday to table the resolution and keep the option of breaching the dams on the table. She called efforts to trap and truck salmon around the dams a “desperate, duct-tape solution” that isn’t feasible in the long-term and questioned whether the PUD’s resolution merely amounted to lobbying for energy and industrial interests.
Dick also brought up suggestions raised in a study commissioned by the Northwest Energy Coalition last year for alternative power sources. That study found that replacing the dams with a comparable set of reliable clean energy generation would increase the Northwest region’s costs by about 2 to 3 percent.
“I think it’s the duty of this utility to continue to pursue those questions,” Dick said. “We just can’t take one stance and say, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do this.’ ... There is no urgent need for you to take a stand on this.”
The debate continues despite a landmark agreement in May between the states, tribes and federal agencies about how water should be spilled at Columbia and Lower Snake River dams to boost the survival of young salmon.The idea is to help juvenile fish during their crucial spring migration to the ocean.
Spill would be boosted during the times of day when power demand is lower, a tradeoff meant to ease the costs of the spill program. During the most profitable hours, typically during the mornings and evenings, spill would be reduced.