Senator Patty Murray pledged she would defend the four lower Snake River dams during her recent visit to the Tri-Cities, and for that the community is grateful.
Historically, the Washington state Democrat has said she is against removing the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, but her recent clarification is important.
In February, she signed a letter sent to House leaders opposing a bill sponsored by several Washington state lawmakers that, if approved, would keep the dams safe for another four years.
That stance caused some Tri-Citians to wonder if her position on breaching the dams might have changed.
But at a Tri-Cities Development Council meeting a couple of weeks ago, she said she would “absolutely” protect the dams.
“I did not call for, nor would I call for, the removal of the Snake River dams,” she said.
That is a relief.
As it turns out, the bill she opposes — HR 3144 — passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday and is headed for a full vote on the House floor.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., is one of the Northwest sponsors of the bipartisan House bill that would keep the status quo at the Snake and Columbia River dams until at least 2022.
The dams are operated under a plan called the Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion, or BiOp. It was created by a collaboration of federal agencies, states and tribes to protect salmon during President Obama’s administration.
But a federal judge later ruled that the massive habitat restoration effort did not do nearly enough to improve Northwest salmon runs, and ordered the government to come up with a new plan.
U.S. Judge Michael Simon ruled another environmental study is needed and must consider the option of removing the Snake River dams.
That is a frightening proposition in Eastern Washington. Particularly, there is concern about how breaching the dams would affect the power grid and the ability to quickly meet surges in demand. Wind and solar power are not consistent forms of energy, utility officials have said, and hydropower is needed to help keep up with demand.
Removing the dams also would affect flood control and the transportation of goods — likely boosting semi-truck traffic on the highways.
Currently, more water is being spilled over the lower Snake and lower Columbia River dams until mid-June because of the court ruling, which is meant to help young salmon migrating to the ocean.
The increase spill is expected to cost Northwest electricity users $40 million in higher rates this spring, according to Newhouse, and there are opposing views that say the spill might inject extra gas into the water, which would actually hurt the fish.
Newhouse and others sponsored HR 3144 in an attempt to keep the spill from happening and to safeguard the dams from those who want them removed.
But Murray had said she wanted the environmental study to proceed. In her letter to House leaders, she said that the “Columbia and Snake River system is essential to the Pacific Northwest’s culture, environment and economy” and that “our expectation” is that the federal government conduct an “open and transparent process.”
She had said the proposed House legislation would be a one-size-fits-all approach that circumvents a process meant to consider all uses of the river system.
While Newhouse and Murray may not see eye-to-eye on HR 3144, they are both against breaching the dams — and that’s crucial common ground.
Environmental groups pushing to improve fish runs by tearing down the dams should know that despite some disagreement, we have lawmakers in both chambers who are against such a drastic move.