At a candidates’ forum less than one month before her election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016, Pramila Jayapal of Seattle said she supported removing dams on “the Columbia and Snake River.”
The forum’s moderator, Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes, asked Jayapal to clarify her very odd position.
“You said we need to get rid of our dams. Did you mean all dams, or just the lower Snake River dams?” Mapes asked, to which Jayapal, then a member of the Washington State Senate, responded: “The Columbia and Snake River, I should have said. Columbia and Snake River.”
After a few more minutes of this rhetorical nonsense, Jayapal and her opponent — no hydroelectric scholar himself — “collapsed in laughter, each admitting with chagrin that they didn’t know enough about the rivers and their dams to speak with authority about the issue,” according to The Times.
We could mark this incident down as just a silly gaffe made by a flustered candidate near the end of a long campaign. We’re all human, after all. And yet…
A sitting state senator’s total naiveté about the source of 70 percent of her state’s power is a depressing example of just how unaware Western Washington politicians can be about the inland Northwest, and about how essential dams are to our way of life. Here’s another example of that disconnect:
Tucked into the state operating budget recently approved by the Legislature is $750,000 to study the potential impact of breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River. The funding was recommended by Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, convened last year to come up with ways to save the imperiled orcas.
We all remember the grim images from last summer — a mother orca swimming with her dead calf for more than 1,000 miles through the Salish Sea, for more than 17 days. Her refusal to let go made headlines around the world and sparked a renewed conversation about the plight of the iconic resident killer whales. Scientists blame the whales’ decline on a lot of things, from inbreeding, disease and pollution to noise, changing ocean conditions and a warming climate. But mostly, scientists say, the whales simply don’t have enough to eat.
While Puget Sound chinook make up the bulk of their diet, the orcas rely on Snake River spring chinook during their annual coastal migrations. So, the governor’s task force linked the Snake River dams to orca survival and they prescribed a closer look at dam breaching.
The dams’ defenders say the link between the dams and the orcas is tenuous at best. They argue the $750,000 approved by the state is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, and I agree.
Already, there have been two Snake River dam removal studies conducted in recent years by NOAA Fisheries. Those studies found that dam removal would have only a slight impact on salmon runs. A new federal environmental study on the question of dam breaching is currently underway. Perhaps the findings of that study will be different than all the previous federal findings. Perhaps this time the research will support breaching the dams. We will have to wait and see.
For now, what we know for sure is that breaching the Snake River dams would have a chilling effect on the region’s economy. The four dams produce more than 1,000 megawatts — about 5 percent of the region’s hydropower. They alone power 1.87 million homes across the state. The Bonneville Power Administration has estimated it would cost ratepayers $550 million a year to replace that power.
And, breaching the dams would completely upend the way many Eastern Washington farmers, particularly wheat farmers, get their products out to the world. According to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, in 2017, more than 3.5 million tons of cargo were barged on the Snake River. Breaching the dams would end all of that. It would take more than 35,140 rail cars to carry what was barged in 2017, or more than 135,000 semi-trucks. Consider the additional truck traffic this would push onto interstates and small rural roads.
Breaching the lower Snake dams may be a bad idea, but it is not a new idea. Former U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, whose seat Jayapal won when he retired, pushed for years for legislation that would have authorized dam removal. McDermott never could get the support of his state’s delegation, and his bills went nowhere. His fellow Democrats quietly kept their distance from him on the issue, aware of the serious economic consequences at stake for Eastern Washington.
Wanda Keefer manages the Port of Clarkston. She’s aware of those consequences, too. She worries about what will happen to her community if the dams come down. “All of us are moved when you see a mother whale pushing around her dead baby,” she told a Times reporter. “That’s hurtful to everybody. But you can’t say it’s just one thing that causes that, and we’re going to wave this magic wand and fix it. Like everything in this world, it’s much more complex.”
Kelli Scott’s email address is email@example.com.