A two-thirds majority of the Clallam County Public Utility District board has voted to support keeping the embattled lower Snake River dams.
Commissioners Will Purser and Rick Paschall voted March 22 — with commissioner Jim Waddell opposed — to pass a resolution backing the Federal Columbia River Power System, including the four hydroelectric dams on the lower reaches of the Columbia’s largest tributary.
The resolution says it recognizes the power system’s role in environmental stewardship and opposes the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River.
“Although Clallam PUD will not sway any decision to keep or remove the lower Snake River dams, we need a official position on the Snake River dams,” PUD General Manager Doug Nass said in the virtual meeting.
“This has been a distraction over the last year and a half. We’re spending too much time on it. Our staff needs to get back to our core business.”
Waddell, an outspoken critic of the lower Snake River dams and founder of DamSense (damsense.org), dissected the three-page PUD resolution line by line.
Seven of 10 public speakers told commissioners that they too oppose the resolution.
“The statements in the resolution are not exactly in line with a lot of data and supporting documentation,” Waddell concluded.
“Yes, they sort of reflect what we often hear in summary documents and position statements, even in the record of decision, but that doesn’t make it right.”
A 2020 federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) rejected the removal of the lower Snake River dams, saying the action would destabilize the power grid, increase greenhouse gas emissions and more than double the risk of regional power outages.
The federal Columbia River Power System provides 87 percent of Clallam County PUD’s electricity.
Purser, a long-time PUD commissioner and Energy Northwest board member, said breaching the lower Snake River dams would complicate resource adequacy under the state Clean Energy Transformation Act.
CETA requires public utilities to provide 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“If we’re going to go to all renewables, and hydro is a renewable under that Act, then it’s not a time to be taking out dams,” Purser said.
In a previous meeting, Purser and Paschall had directed PUD staff to draft a resolution supporting the Snake River dams.
Nass said the resolution was “based on facts” in the 2020 EIS and CETA requirements.
Built between 1961 and 1975, the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River have been blamed for declining chinook salmon runs and the starvation of the Southern Resident orcas.
Several environmental groups have called for the removal of the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams between Pasco and Pullman.
Tribal leaders from Washington state and Oregon are calling on Congress and the Biden administration to remove the four dams, saying the dams block fish passage and create conditions such as warm water that are blamed for plummeting returns.
“As a citizen of Clallam County and a PUD ratepayer and customer, I object to the PUD taking a political stand on my behalf,” Paul Hansen of Carlsborg said during a public comment period at the March 22 meeting.
“The question of breaching these dams is highly controversial, and there are many PUD ratepayers who believe that the removal of the dams is necessary to prevent extinction of some species of Snake River salmonid and the consequent extinction of the Southern Resident orca pods.”
Nass said there were other factors that impact salmon recovery, including pollution, global warming, predator populations and “unknown issues out in the ocean.”
The Washington Public Utility Districts Association, Public Power Council, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, federal Bureau of Reclamation and “at least” 22 other PUDs have taken official positions in support of the lower Snake River dams, Nass said.
“They’re not all evil and bad people,” Nass said, addressing public speakers who opposed the resolution.
“They’re not your enemies. Many of them are experts in these issues, and I think we should realize that.”
The resolution states that removal of more than 3,000 megawatts of short-term peaking winter capacity would have an adverse impact on Northwest power resource adequacy.
“This is a long-held myth,” Waddell said of the peak power generation claim.
“Basically the LSRDs (lower Snake River dams) provided, unfortunately, no peaking reserve power. They are run-of-river dams severely constrained by seasonal flows and operational restrictions.”
The dams have a normal operating range storage capacity of up to 33,000 megawatt hours, PUD officials said.
Breaching the dams without firm capacity replacement would “negatively affect the district’s ability to provide reliable, efficient, clean and affordable power to its customers,” the resolution says.
“The district supports retaining the four lower Snake River dams for the low carbon equivalent, renewable, reliable, low-cost energy they provide, making them an important component of a clean energy future,” the resolution says.
“The district opposes the removal or breaching of the four lower Snake River dams given uncertainty and the potential negative impact to long-term regional resource adequacy, as well as the loss of other benefits, as referenced in the EIS.”
Waddell, a retired U.S. Army Corps civil engineer, refuted most of the statements in the PUD resolution.
He said the dams have a cost-benefit ratio of 15 cents on the dollar.
Breaching the dams, Waddell said, would yield 3,000 to 4,000 new jobs in agriculture, fishing and ancillary services like wineries and motels.
He said the dams emit the carbon equivalent of 87,000 metric tons of methane.
“Indeed, breaching would not only avoid methane emissions but would free up 3,000 megawatts of grid space that would allow reasonably quick utilization of wind, solar, with battery backup that is currently waiting interconnection on the BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) grid,” Waddell said.
“These renewables can replace fossil fuels at a much quicker rate and with cheaper resources. We do not have to expand the grid to accommodate this.”
Waddell said the 2020 EIS commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, federal Bureau of Reclamation and BPA contained “fatal flaws” that are being challenged in court.
“Many of these flaws are just common sense, and ratepayers should not wait for more court proceedings to recognize the economic losses the LSRDs are creating, and that power rates will go up between 5 and 15 percent with the preferred alternative,” Waddell said.
The preferred alternative in the EIS is no dam removal.
Waddell said the lower Snake River dams have had an adverse effect on the fishing industry on the North Olympic Peninsula.
“Tribes and other fishermen in Western Washington will lose what few jobs are left of what was once an economic driver of Clallam County,” he said.