By EMRY DINMAN
For The Basin Business Journal
OLYMPIA - Washington Governor Jay Inslee ignored the pleas of two eastern Washington representatives to veto a $750,000 line item in the state capital budget that would commission a study on the effects of breaching the lower Snake River dams.
The study was one of a number of proposals from Inslee that passed during the 2019 legislative session with the goal of improving the health of salmon and the orcas that eat them. Though the extent of the effects on recovery are uncertain, proponents of breaching the dams say that it would improve salmon runs that would ultimately feed the killer whale population that frequents Washington’s coastal waters and the Puget Sound.
Inslee’s refusal to veto was exactly what Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both R-WA, were aiming to avoid when they released a statement in mid-May emphasizing what they see as the importance of the dams and stating that the study is a waste of state taxpayer dollars.
“Our dams provide essential benefits to our way of life in the Pacific Northwest – from powering nearly 2 million homes with clean and affordable energy to providing market access for our region’s farmers and producers,” they wrote. “Instead of studying the removal of our federal dams, these state dollars could have been used to fund salmon recovery programs that directly aid endangered salmon species.”
Replacing the electricity from the dams with other sustainable resources would require considerable investment. According to the Bonneville Power Administration, the four lower Snake River dams have a capacity of over 3000 megawatts of electricity.
In comparison, the Lind Solar Array, currently the state’s largest with 81,700 solar panels, has a capacity of 28 megawatts on 200 acres, according to a brochure from energy company Avista, which sells electricity from the facility. To produce an equivalent amount of energy would require 8.75 million solar panels on around 21,500 acres under optimal conditions.
Replacing the output of the dams would require fewer wind turbines, but more acreage. A conditional use permit was approved last August for the Rattlesnake Flats Wind Farm in Adams County, which would produce 145 megawatts with 90 turbines and 27,000 acres. Extrapolating from this project, it would take 1,862 turbines to replace the electricity from the lower Snake River dams — and over 550,000 acres of land, larger than a number of Washington’s smaller counties.
Hydropower also serves a different role in the electrical grid, as it is able to increase or decrease output quickly depending on demand, whereas wind and solar generally have a fixed output that is more dependent on environmental conditions.
Separately, the dams also provide a low-cost method of transporting goods from landlocked agricultural regions to the coastal ports, allowing barges to travel through a series of locks through the Snake River and lower Columbia. However, barge shipping along the Snake River has dropped to around a third of the peak two decades ago, and dropped from around 5.5 million metric tons of goods in 2007 to 3.5 in 2016, according to information from the Army Corps of Engineers.
A letter issued May 10 from 33 groups, including utility companies and districts, port districts, economic development groups, irrigators and agricultural interests, similarly urged Inslee to veto the budget item. The group noted that a federal study of “the general issue of Snake River dam operations” is already underway.
“The federal agencies are required to explore a range of reasonable alternatives for longterm system operations that accounts for flood control, irrigation, power generation, navigation, fish and wildlife, cultural resources and recreation,” the letter stated. “A parallel state study, which is less comprehensive and with far less funding, will divide the interests who are working to recover Orca whales, and will not occur within a time frame that will provide meaningful progress in Orca recovery efforts.”
Emry Dinman can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.