The U.S. Department of Interior supports the goals of a bill intended to preserve four lower Snake River Dams, said Alan Mikkelsen, acting commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, at a congressional subcommittee hearing of the bill on Thursday.
The bill — cosponsored by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. — would require the four dams to continue to be operated as they are now at least until 2022 or a new science-based operating plan is in place.
The legislation could reduce litigation and allow federal agencies to focus on the continued stable operation of the system of Columbia and Snake river dams until there is a new operating plan, Mikkelsen said.
Dams are operated under the Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion, or BiOp, a plan created by a collaboration of federal agencies, states and tribes to protect salmon while operating dams.
The bill would prohibit dam breaching unless authorized by Congress. It also would effectively overturn a court decision that requires the Army Corps of Engineers to spill more water for fish at eight Columbia and Snake river dams in 2018.
A federal court judge ruled that the BiOp doesn’t do enough to rebuild endangered salmon and steehead populations.
Judge Michael Simon has ordered a new environmental review, which is required to include a look at breaching the four Snake River dams. A 2018 deadline is set for an immediate plan for operate the dams, to be followed by a new BiOp.
This bill would simply codify the current BiOp and reassert congressional authority over dams.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
“The BiOp is working,” Jack Heffling of West Richland told the Natural Resources Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee. He is a power plant operator and the president of the United Power Trades Organization, which represents hydropower workers.
Fish survival at dams now is equal to and in some cases better than the survival of fish migrating rivers without dams, he said.
Water is being spilled over dams rather than used for hydropower generation under the BiOp, he said. He doubted the amount could be increased without also increasing the dissolved gases in the water to a level lethal to fish.
The dams are more important than the amount of power they produce annually, he said, under questioning from Newhouse at the hearing.
They also can provide peak power not just during certain times of the year, but can increase power production during the times of day — before and after work — when power demand is highest, he said.
“You can’t request wind blow harder because we need peak power right now,” he said.
We want to repeat the success of fall chinook with spring chinook that are currently in steep decline.
Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association
The increased spill in 2018 would cost $40 million and increase Bonneville Power Administration rates by 2 percent, said Beth Looney, president of PNGC Power in Portland. That’s on top of a 5.4 percent increase ushered in last week and a 30 percent increase over recent years, she said.
A third of BPA power costs already are for fish and wildlife services, she said.
“This bill would simply codify the current BiOp and reassert congressional authority over dams,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who testified at the hearing as a sponsor of the bill.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., the ranking subcommittee member, countered enthusiasm for the bill by Republicans at the hearing, saying the nation may have low-value dams that do not justify their cost to the nation’s fisheries. It only makes sense to study them, but the bill would undercut the current environmental study, he said.
Dams and their reservoirs are the main source of human-caused salmon mortality, said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
Increasing spills in the past has resulted in higher adult returns to spawning areas, she said. Further increasing spills could triple the return of some species, she said.
“We want to repeat the success of fall chinook with spring chinook that are currently in steep decline,” she said.
Heffling said it was improvements to make dams more fish-friendly that contributed to the higher adult returns.