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House GOP members look to block eastern Washington dam breaches

Tribes have reserved fishing rights that have been severely impacted

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., says efforts to remove dams shows disregard for the hydropower and irrigation they offer.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., says efforts to remove dams shows disregard for the hydropower and irrigation they offer. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans will question federal officials this week on the fate of four dams in eastern Washington that tribes and environmentalists have sought to breach to restore fish populations and uphold tribal treaties.

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security will hold a hearing on an agreement that outlines a path to removal of Lower Snake River dams in the Columbia River Basin, which full committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., vehemently opposes.

These four dams, built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Federal Columbia River Power System, are located in Rodgers’ and fellow Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse’s districts.

“We are deeply disturbed by the blatant disregard for the enormous hydropower, irrigation, and navigation benefits these dams provide, as well as a willingness to ignore the voices of those who depend on the dams the most,” Rodgers and subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said in a joint statement. “This hearing will provide an opportunity to expose how its plans will destroy people’s lives in Eastern Washington.”

Last month, the Biden administration announced its support for an agreement between Oregon, Washington, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes and environmental groups.

Under the agreement, the federal government will provide more than $1 billion for wild fish restoration and other investments over the coming decade in exchange for a decadelong pause in litigation against the federal government’s operation of these dams.

The investments will also help “ensure continued energy reliability and affordability, transportation, recreation, irrigation, and other key services, including in the event that Congress decides to authorize breaching of the four Lower Snake River dams,” the White House said in announcing the agreement.

The four tribes party to the agreement have long supported removing the dams to restore the salmon population. Under an 1855 treaty the tribes have reserved fishing rights, which have been severely impacted.

According to a 2022 report from the National Marine Fisheries Service, breaching the Lower Snake River dams would improve river conditions for salmon and steelhead, providing them with more habitat. It found these actions could not only ensure they are no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act but could also rebuild “healthy and harvestable” populations.  

However, the plan has drawn significant opposition in the inland northwest, where residents and their representatives point to the power, irrigation and recreational benefits from the dams. The four dams cumulatively generate about 900 average megawatts of zero-carbon-emission power each year and provide other grid services, including operating reserves and voltage support.

Breaching the dams could cost as much as $2 billion, according to a report from Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, with billions more needed to replace infrastructure and other services.

A majority of the region’s Republican representatives in Congress have referred to the plan as a backdoor agreement that fails to take into account the wider concerns.

On Jan. 24, Newhouse introduced a bill that would prevent any federal funds from being used to implement the Biden administration’s agreement, or from being used to breach or alter the operations of the dams.

Agriculture groups from the region endorsed the bill, which is co-sponsored by Rodgers, Oregon Republican Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer and Cliff Bentz and Idaho Republican Russ Fulcher.

The only Republican from the region not co-sponsoring the bill is Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. He released his own plan in 2021 calling for the breach of the four dams along with over $33 billion to replace the services they provide to the region. He has received pushback from his Republican colleagues and little buy-in from those skeptical of calls to breach the dams.

According to the International Energy Agency, hydropower is expected to be the world’s largest source of renewable energy into the next decade. However, the Lower Snake River dams are far from the only project to have an adverse impact on the environment.

Last week, the largest dam removal project in American history moved forward when a crew blew a hole in the last of four dams that will be removed along the Klamath River, which runs through Oregon and California.

PacifiCorp agreed to remove these dams in 2016, in part to avoid the cost of upgrades such as salmon ladders. Much like the tribes further north, the Hoopa Valley, Karuk and Yurok tribes pushed to remove these dams over the effect they had on salmon and its habitat. While much smaller than the Lower Snake River dams, the project will still cost roughly $500 million.

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