science environment

New Federal Effort Tries To 'Save Our Dams' Along Snake River

By Courtney Flatt (OPB)
July 3, 2017 9:07 p.m.
The Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River.

The Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River.

Bonneville Power Administration

A new bill in Congress would make sure Washington's four lower Snake River dams stay standing. It's push back against a recent court order to find "a new approach" to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

That approach could include removing or altering the dams.

That's not something Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington, thinks would be good for the Northwest. Newhouse introduced the legislation, along with four other Northwest representatives.

"Removing the Snake River dams would be harmful to our communities, the environment and our economy. This legislation is needed to support the critical role that Snake River dams play by providing Washington communities with clean, renewable hydropower," Newhouse said.

The bipartisan legislation would keep a federal plan to protect salmon in place until 2022. Right now, the government has until 2021 to finish a new Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion.

The opinion has been contested through lawsuits for more than two decades.

In the most recent decision Federal District Court Judge Michael Simon rejected the government's plan for fish. It's the fifth time the plan has been rejected.

Simon ruled all options must be on the table, including a deep look at whether the four lower Snake River dams should be altered or removed.

"Despite billions of dollars spent on these efforts, the listed species continue to be in a perilous state," Simon wrote. "The (Federal Columbia River Power System) remains a system that 'cries out' for a new approach."

The bill would also effectively overturn Simon's decision to increase more spill over eight Columbia and Snake rivers dams. Simon ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to spill more water over the dams to help juvenile salmon migrate out to the ocean.

Environmental groups strongly oppose the bill.


A news release from the groups said increased spill is the "most effective action in the near-term to improve survival of endangered salmon populations."

"This legislative proposal is misguided, counter-productive and based on an extremely poor understanding of the plight of our salmon and any realistic changes to how Columbia Basin hydro-system would operate to better protect salmon," said Bill Arthur, Sierra Club Chair of the Columbia-Snake River Salmon Recovery Campaign.

Too much spill can increase dissolved gas in the water, which can cause something akin to the bends in fish.

The bill was also introduced by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler, both Washington Republicans — as well as Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, and Greg Walden, R-Oregon.

"As we work to improve fish runs, we must not lose sight of the importance to the region of renewable hydropower, recreation and transportation," Walden said. "The uncertainty created by on-going litigation over operations impacts all of that."