Energy Secretary Rick Perry committed Thursday to keeping the Snake and Columbia river dams producing low-cost electricity for the Pacific Northwest.
He said he would lend his support to Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., to prevent additional water spilling over the dams to help salmon, which was ordered by a federal judge, and also to save the dams from being torn out.
“I know that you are a strong proponent of renewable hydroelectric power, Mr. Secretary,” Newhouse said during the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.
“Would you commit to working with me to prevent this forced additional spill, save our dams, which are a vital component to our way of life in the Pacific Northwest?” Newhouse asked.
Perry replied, “The short answer — yes.”
Newhouse and other supporters of the current operation of the dams have language proposed for the current fiscal year’s budget bill to prevent spilling more water over the dams rather than using it to produce electricity.
Perry’s visited the Tri-Cities area in August as a new energy secretary, included stopping at McNary Dam on the Columbia River.
“So you were able to see, I think I could say firsthand, really the huge role that the hydroelectric dams play in the Pacific Northwest,” Newhouse said.
In May 2016 the U.S. Judge Michael Simon ordered a new environmental study of the hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake rivers, including a look at the costs and benefits of breaching or tearing down four Lower Snake River dams.
He found that the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion, or BiOp — a plan developed by a collaboration of federal agencies, states and tribes to protect salmon while operating Snake and Columbia river dams — did not do enough to protect salmon.
Then in 2017 Simon issued another order, telling federal agencies to increase spilling over eight dams, starting this spring, in the hopes of delivering out-migrating juvenile salmon more quickly and safely to the ocean.
“Right now there is a single federal judge that is forcing additional spill at our dams,” Newhouse said during the hearing.
Critics of the decision say the additional water would do little to help fish and could create high gas levels in the water that can harm juvenile fish.
The spilled water would otherwise be used for power production and will cost Pacific Northwest electric users $40 million in higher electric rates this year, Newhouse said.
Northwest political leaders are split on the issue.
Newhouse was among a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives introducing legislation that would require the BiOp to be followed until at least 2022. It would keep the status quo — no breaching, no extra spill of water — until then.
Joining him on the bill were Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.; Greg Walden, R-Ore.; and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
In February, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., urged key leadership in the Senate and the House not to support the bill. Reps. Adam Smith and Pramila Jayapal, both D-Wash., joined her in her letter to leadership.
The legislation “would undermine the important, ongoing work” on the study by forcing the use of the 2014 BiOp, which the court found to be flawed, the letter said.
An open and transparent process is needed on the study and the BiOp, the letter said.
“Unfortunately, H.R. 3144 would prevent this by circumventing the judicial branch and ignoring bedrock environmental laws,” the letter said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, also has opposed the proposed federal legislation.
In December, he urged federal lawmakers not to support the bill, saying it would harm ongoing efforts to improve future salmon and dam management.
Perry’s name has been floated in recent days as a possible candidate to head Veterans Affairs as current Secretary David Shulkin is accused of ethics violations. The Associated Press reported that Perry said Wednesday he was not interested in the job.