Legislation to preserve operation of the lower Snake River dams passed out of a U.S. House committee on Wednesday, but not without opposition.
The vote of the House Natural Resources Committee was 23-17 on a bill that would prevent breaching the dams until at least 2022 and override a decision that the dams must spill more water.
The legislation is expected to be voted on by the full House in the coming weeks, but then also will need Senate approval.
“The bill is a troubling attack on legal action,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. “If we enact the bill, it would overturn lawfully rendered court decisions simply because bill sponsors don’t like them.”
But Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said the Columbia and Snake River power system “has been mired in third-party litigation, questionable judicial edicts and onerous federal regulation for decades.”
The dams on the Snake River are operated under a plan called the Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion, or BiOp. It was created by collaboration of federal agencies, states and tribes during the administration of President Obama to protect salmon while operating hydropower dams.
But U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in Portland has twice issued rulings that override the BiOp, finding it does not do enough to protect salmon.
He has ordered a new environmental study to look at options, including the pros and cons of breaching or tearing down the Snake River dams from Ice Harbor Dam near Burbank upriver to Lower Granite Dam.
He also ordered that more water be spilled over the Snake River dams than the amount established by the BiOp to see if it would help young salmon migrating to the ocean.
Water that is spilled cannot be used to produce electricity. Northwest residents can expect to pay $40 million more for electricity because of the increased spill on Snake and Columbia River dams this month through mid-June, and for each spring the increased spill continues.
“Without Snake and Columbia River dams and the many benefits they provide, life in Central Washington as we know it would be unrecognizable,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., after the committee hearing. He is a sponsor of the bipartisan bill, which was authored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.
“I represent communities that actually live with the consequences of forced increased spill or potentially breaching dams, whether through higher electricity rates, higher transportation costs, reduced access to irrigation water, reduced flood control and more,” Newhouse said.
There has been a collaborative process, with all voices heard, to develop a plan based on science, said Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., during the hearing. He called the bill a “common sense piece of legislation.”
Grijalva said the bill is an attack on the Endangered Species Act and would double down on the status quo of modest hydropower mitigation efforts. They have cost billions of dollars without recovering any of the 13 populations of fish at risk, he said.
Grijalva proposed an amendment to the bill that would require tribal resources be protected and require meaningful consultation by federal agencies with the tribes.
But Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there was extensive tribal consultation during the development of the BiOp. The amendment would provide more grounds on which to litigate against the BiOp, he said.
“The point is to take a timeout on litigation,” he said.
The amendment failed 23-17, a tally identical to the final vote in favor of the bill.
Among those opposing the amendment was Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., who said the BiOp has resulted in improved salmon survival at the dams due to changes in operations and new fish passage technologies.