Weekly Column – October 26, 2021
Murray, Inslee Bend to Political Hostage-Taking
By Congressman Dan Newhouse
For more than 20 years, a group of plaintiffs led by a litigious special interest environmental group have held our region hostage, threatening to breach our dams and drain the lifeblood of our region. Their lawsuits have never been about the operation of our dams; rather, they have placed a bullseye on our critical infrastructure which provides clean, carbon-free energy throughout the region while protecting our native salmon population. They are driven by a singular, ideological goal: dam breaching.
After federal scientists, engineers, and fish experts in the Obama Administration finalized years-long analyses fine-tuning the operations of the federal river power system, our region continued its leadership of harnessing the power of our rivers for clean, carbon-free hydroelectric power while balancing the needs of our native salmon species. However, for organizations fixated on “free-flowing” rivers as the only means for achieving environmental success, it wasn’t enough. They sued the Obama Administration, they sued the Trump Administration, and now, they are suing the Biden Administration.
It is clear these litigants are so singularly focused on breaching that they have blinded themselves to the countless other benefits our dams provide for our region – not to mention the great strides our salmon populations have made over the last few years, even amidst rising ocean temperatures and record levels of pollution in the Puget Sound. What’s worse, radical environmental interests have capitalized off the well-intentioned, yet misplaced concerns of tribes and local environmental organizations in order to maintain their revenue stream of special interest dollars.
Together, these organizations will not stop for anything short of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams (LSRD). And to be clear, if they were to achieve that radical goal, it would only be the beginning. We are already seeing broadened calls to remove the dams along the Lower Columbia River as well.
While I share the goal of restoring a healthy native salmon population, if these serial litigants were truly concerned, they’d take a moment to look at the science. In addition to the millions of tons of carbon these dams prevent from entering our atmosphere, they’ve utilized world-class technology and engineering to support the most efficient production of carbon-free hydroelectricity while also improving fish passage to rates between 93 and 96 percent. Our dams also provide a sustainable and efficient way to transport our region’s crop exports. Barging on the Columbia and Snake Rivers keeps 700,000 semi-trucks off the roads – and their emissions out of the air – each year. Removing barging as an option for agriculture producers and manufacturers throughout the Pacific Northwest would vastly increase carbon emissions and increase diesel fuel consumption by nearly 5 million gallons each year. Combined with the loss of clean, carbon-free power, the impacts would be felt far beyond our region.
It is clear that many of these dam-breaching proponents have long since stopped caring about the salmon and are simply abusing the court system for their own payout. The fact that the Department of Justice announced a settlement to stay the most recent attack on our dams until July of 2022 – the same date Senator Murray and Governor Inslee have announced they will release their dam-breaching plans – demonstrates a predetermined backdoor deal is in the works. For those of us who truly care about our region’s survival, these actions are deeply disturbing.
It appears dam breaching is becoming a litmus test. After Senator Murray and Governor Inslee announced in May that they were opposed to Rep. Simpson’s plan to breach the LSRD, the backlash from the environmentalists and downtown Seattle-base of the Democratic Party was fierce. In the months since, these groups have developed a strategic posture to hold Senator Murray and others hostage: They must produce a dam-breaching plan, or the lawsuit and political threats will continue.
Their attempt to pressure the Biden Administration and Senator Murray, as she faces a campaign for her sixth term to the Senate, is a continuation of this decades-long cycle of hostage-taking. And while it is not at all surprising to see Governor Inslee side with these groups, it is particularly distressing for the communities, businesses, and people of Central and Eastern Washington to see Senator Murray reverse her position on her long-held support for our river power system.
“I did not call for, nor will I call for, the removal of the Snake River dams,” she told them in 2018.
Since the Senator made that promise to my constituents, our nation has not only become even more reliant on the reliable and affordable clean energy our dams produce, but fish runs have significantly improved. The Spring Chinook salmon run for the Snake River increased 27 percent from 2020 levels, more than doubled from the 2019 returns, and is more than 40 times the 741 that passed the year the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1992. While I could continue to list data point after data point outlining the vast strides that have been made in preserving and restoring our native salmon population, it can be better summed up by the four-year, federal environmental study released in 2020 that advised against breaching the four LSRD. As the federal scientists, engineers, and fish experts found, dams “are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the ESA-listed species.”
Apparently, that’s not enough. Governor Inslee and Senator Murray are now proposing to spend millions more in federal and Washington state taxpayer dollars to pursue yet another study – more process to arrive at their desired outcome. Their thinly veiled attempt at cherry picking data, however, should serve as the last straw for the members of the Columbia Basin Collaborative, the four-state agreement formed to discuss the impacts of salmon recovery on the entirety of the Pacific Northwest. It is clear that Governor Inslee is taking a cue from Oregon Governor Kate Brown by acting on his own accord and no longer operating in good faith. It is time for Governor Little of Idaho and Governor Gianforte of Montana to hold them both accountable and remove themselves from this sham of an agreement which only serves to provide legitimacy to Governor Inslee and Brown’s political agenda.
Breaching our dams is not the answer. We have years of scientific research and data to prove it, but – as it’s become increasingly clear – that will never be enough. This endless cycle of litigation from extreme environmentalists only puts our region at risk, and Governor Inslee and Senator Murray are irresponsibly bending to their will. By recklessly pursuing this path forward, they are not only threatening the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest but also our national energy security and food supply that helps feed the nation and the world. I hope they will open their eyes to impacts dam breaching would have on both our environment and the people they were elected to represent. I call on them to stop playing politics and listen to the science.