Tepid approval of dam removals

Snake River project divides electeds

Kate Dean

Kate Dean

Removal of the lower Snake River dams has garnered middling support from some officials on the North Olympic Peninsula, where two Elwha River dams were dismantled beginning 10 years ago in the largest project of its kind in the nation’s history.

The Port Townsend City Council earlier this month joined the Port Angeles City Council and Jefferson County commissioners in unanimously supporting Republican Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s Lower Basin Initiative.

But the Clallam Public Utility District has voted to keep the dams, while the Sequim and Forks city councils and Clallam County commissioners have not weighed in on the issue. Forks and county officials said on April 23 they are tackling more important issues.

The project would entail breaching the hydroelectric Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams to improve salmon and steelhead habitat and upgrade agriculture and transportation infrastructure, according to Simpson’s website at simpson.house.gov.

“I have found that replacing the benefits of the 4 LSRDs (Lower Snake River Dams) would be very expensive, at a minimum of $33.5 billion,” he said on the website.

“However, this may prove to be a bargain when compared to what it may cost in out-of-pocket dollars for fish recovery and future costs put on stakeholders.

“I want to be very clear; I have not drafted legislation and I am not currently drafting legislation.

“A concept like this will take all the Northwest delegation, governors, tribes, and stakeholders working together to draft a solution. It will be no easy task and on a very tight timeline.”

That togetherness has yet to be seen among elected boards in Clallam and Jefferson counties.

Port Townsend Mayor Michelle Sandoval said last week the city council letter was circulated among council members before they approved it as part of her council report at a meeting — instead of being a regular agenda item — then was sent to 6th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose constituency area includes Clallam and Jefferson counties.

But the Clallam County commissioners, who meet 9 miles from the river whose flow was freed by dam removal, have never discussed taking a stand, board chair Mark Ozias of Sequim said last week.

Instead, on April 6 he sent his own correspondence on the board’s letterhead to Kilmer and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, calling Simpson’s plan a “win-win solution” for improving salmon habitat “while maintaining or improving the flow of agricultural products to market and generating dependable ‘green’ energy” before acknowledging a truth also apparent on the Peninsula.

“To date, various stakeholders have been totally unable to reach a consensus on key issues including the fate of the dams on the Lower Snake River,” Ozias wrote.

He said he sent the letter on his own without seeking board approval after assuming, through general conversations on the issue during past meetings, that his board colleagues were not interested in discussing Simpson’s plan.

“I don’t think the board sees that as an issue that is particularly relevant to Clallam County,” Ozias said.

Commissioner Bill Peach said he saw the dams staying put as somewhat of a done deal. An environmental impact statement has determined the dams should not be removed, asserting the power grid would be destabilized, greenhouse gas emissions would increase and the risk of regional power outages would more than double.

“If you want to shift to some other activities, other resources, other mitigation, I just have to believe it would take an extremely large amount of money,” adding he’s not sure how it would be funded.

Commissioner Randy Johnson said on April 23 that he did not know Ozias had penned the correspondence.

“Relative to other issues we have going on right now, I agree totally with Mark,” Johnson said, citing pandemic-related funding for the Black Ball Ferry Line, addressing the county’s homeless population and addressing what he called Clallam’s childcare crisis.

“All those are very appropriate and very local and all matter,” Johnson said.

“I’ve heard from farmers in that part of the world where that’s a major issue,” he said of dam removal.

Proponents say Simpson’s plan will make farmers whole, “but honestly, I’m not sure how,” Johnson said.

“I’m not versed enough to say, ‘Hey, (Simpson’s plan) makes sense.’”

Sandoval compared support for the removal of the lower Snake River dams to that of the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams, completed in 2014.

“Just like our dams and the changes it made in our environment and our waterways and salmon, it’s all of our problem,” she said.

“I don’t think it takes too much for any good citizen to send a letter. It’s obvious to us locally what removal of dams can do positively.”

Jefferson County commissioners saw things differently, too, unanimously approving a letter written by Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour.

“We’ve seen firsthand the benefits of restoring healthy rivers via the effects of the historic removal of the dams on the Elwha River. Scientists have marveled at the recovery of the Elwha ecosystem,” it says.

“But it’s not just the promise of salmon recovery that makes this proposal appealing. It is its potential to bring our region together instead of leaving us divided. This proposal could move Northwest people from a history of conflict to a future of collaboration.”

In a split vote, Clallam Public Utility District Commissioners Will Purser and Rick Paschall voted to keep the dams, while Bonneville Power Administration critic Jim Waddell voted to get rid of them.

“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.”

Dan Toepper, Jefferson County Public Utility District board president, said Friday commissioners have not taken a position but probably will, since what happens with the dams will affect the utility’s Bonneville Power Administration contract.

“Until we know more about what exactly is going to transpire, I don’t think anyone is taking any position,” he said.

The Port Angeles City Council voted 5-1 in June to support removal. Mayor Kate Dexter voted no, and Charlie McCaughan abstained, saying he needed more information.

Both voted April 6 to send a letter to Kilmer’s office supporting Simpson’s proposal, making it unanimous.

“We have to be conscientious,” Dexter said at the council meeting. “The reality is, we have to do more.”

Like Jefferson County commissioners, the Port Angeles City Council cites demolition of the Peninsula’s own dams as a case in point.

“We’ve seen firsthand the benefits of restoring healthy rivers via the effects of the historic removal of the dams on the Elwha River,” the letter says.

But like the Clallam County commissioners, neither the Sequim nor Forks city councils have taken a stand.

Sequim City Council member Brandon Janisse did not return calls for comment last week. City Clerk Sara McMillon said in an email that, to her knowledge, the council has not discussed dam removal.

The same is true for the Forks City Council.

“We’ve got things that are higher priority for us, I suppose,” City Attorney-Planner Rod Fleck said Friday. “I don’t think this has been talked about at all by our council.”

Kilmer praised Simpson’s proposal in a statement his office released Saturday.

He continued to support a regional dialogue regarding the dams that is “grounded in the best available science, honors tribal treaty rights, and reflects the cultural and economic values of our region,” he said.

“Representative Simpson’s framework offers a lot of substance for our regional stakeholders to consider, but there is still an enormous amount of work to do — both to build the consensus among impacted stakeholders and communities that is necessary to create durable solutions, and to do the difficult job of translating these concepts into actionable federal policies,” Kilmer said.

Kate Dexter

Kate Dexter

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