Washington bill would study breaching Seattle-area dams

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Amidst concerns about salmon survival numbers and finger-pointing on both sides, Washington lawmakers are considering a bill that would turn the focus from the Lower Snake River dams to infrastructure on the western side of the state.

Senate Bill 6380, introduced by Senator Doug Ericksen (R-42nd District), asks for a study to examine the costs or benefits of making changes to the Ballard Locks, Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and Ravenna Creek.

“I think it’s important for the people of King County and Seattle to take a very hard, long look in their own backyard before traveling to the rural parts of Washington state with great ideas on how we can take out dams or restore things to their wild nature,” said Sen. Ericksen at a hearing on Tuesday in Olympia.

Both the Ballard Locks (also known as the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks) and the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project were constructed in 1917. The Ballard Locks conduct more boat traffic than any other lock in the U.S. The construction of the locks significantly altered the surrounding topography of Seattle, lowered the water level of Lake Washington and Lake Union by 8.8 feet and added miles of waterfront land.

The Skagit project consists of the Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam and Ross Dam. The project is owned and operated by Seattle City Light to provide electricity for the Seattle area. The Skagit dams provide about 20 percent of Seattle City Light’s electricity.

Jim Jesernig, born and raised in Kennewick and a former state senator for the area, testified at Tuesday’s hearing. Jesernig urged lawmakers not to vote for the bill but acknowledged Sen. Ericksen’s overall point.

“It doesn’t make any more sense that you would tear the heart out of the city of Seattle than you would tear the heart out of Eastern Washington by taking the Snake River dams out,” said Jesernig, who was representing the Washington Potato & Onion Association and Washington Grain Commission. “We very much applaud Sen. Ericksen’s ability to say, ‘Take a look in the mirror; this is a shared sacrifice we’re all going to have to work on.’”

Todd Myers, a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center, emphasized using the limited funding and resources available in the most effective way possible.

“If we are going to recover salmon stocks and if we are going to help the orca, the battle will be won or lost in Puget Sound,” he said.

Governor Inslee recently allotted 750-thousand-dollars to study how the Lower Snake River dams impact various industries and the consequences of possibly breaching those dams. The draft report of that study was released earlier this month. So far, about half of the allotted state funding has been utilized.

In February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to publish the Columbia River Systems Operation Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of all the  dams on the Columbia River systems.

To watch the full Senate Bill 6380 hearing, click here.