Community leaders gather in show of support for Snake River dams

KENNEWICK, Wash. — The ‘to breach or not to breach’ conversation continued in Kennewick on Monday as community leaders gathered in support of the Snake River dams.

A press conference was held to allow local stakeholders the chance to respond to the federal Environmental Impact Statement released on Friday. Agencies represented at Tuesday’s event included Benton PUD, Franklin PUD, Port of Pasco, Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, Benton Clean Air Agency and Benton Rural Electric Cooperative.

“Today’s gathering is not a victory lap,” said Mike Gonzalez, senior manager of public affairs at Franklin PUD. “There are still going to be many people who disagree with the conclusion of this draft report to keep the dams, and they’re going to be very active trying to change it.”

The speakers brought a variety of perspectives to the table – addressing everything from the dams’ effect on air quality to power generation.

“I see firsthand the benefits the dams provide, including moving cargo up and down the river along with irrigation for agriculture” said Vicki Gordon, Port of Pasco commissioner and owner of Gordon Estate Winery and Kamiak Vineyard. Both sit right on the Snake River just below Ice Harbor Dam.

Robin Priddy from Benton Clear Air Agency was concerned about Eastern Washington losing barging as a method of transportation and potentially replacing it with trucks. She said it would increase ozone levels in the Tri-Cities, which are already close to the federal standard due to its geography.

“If we exceeded the federal standard, that would keep businesses from being able to develop or expand, and it would impact transportation projects,” she said.

Another major concern brought up at the event was losing a source of clean electricity. Under legislation signed by Governor Inslee, Washington has been put on the path to be completely reliant on clean energy by 2045. This also comes as another source of power – coal plants – are shutting down.

“If you start to retire that much electricity generation, you know then that what you have left is going to be incredibly important, and that’s really where the the lower Snake River dams come in,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners. “They are carbon-free at a time when you aren’t really allowed to add new carbon to the grid, and you’re getting rid of a lot of your old carbon resources.”

Those who want to breach the dams – like many environmentalists and tribe members – believe they are the largest contributor to lower salmon returns and declining orca survival. However, many at the event felt that there are other factors at play, like warmer and more acidic oceans and predatory birds. They said more could be done to help salmon and orca numbers apart from breaching the dams.

“On the one hand, you have guaranteed harm to society and the environment, and on the other hand, you have questionable benefit,” said Miller. “That doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff.”

A public comment period is now open for people to share feedback on the draft report. A public meeting will also be held in Kennewick on March 18.

The final version of Governor Inslee’s state-funding stakeholder study on the dams is expected to be released this Friday.