Progress in Congress on Protecting Northwest Hydropower

By Rep. Dan Newhouse

For months, my Pacific Northwest congressional colleagues and I have been raising our voices and working on legislation to prevent increasing forced spill at the lower Snake and Columbia River dams from raising electricity rates in our region by $40 million. That forced spill order, the result of a ruling of a single federal judge in Portland, took effect at the beginning of April.

Last week, our work resulted in passing bipartisan legislation, H.R. 3144, introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, myself, and members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest, which would protect our dams and preserve lower electricity rates for families in the Mid-Columbia.

Our bill requires that the dams in the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) continue to operate under a comprehensive framework called the FCRPS Biological Opinion, which was put in place during the Obama Administration, until 2022. That framework was the product of painstaking negotiations that included local stakeholders, scientists and engineers at federal agencies, states, and sovereign Northwest tribes (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes of the Colvilles, the Salish-Kootenai Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission).

Yet a single judge threw out that Biological Opinion, saying it did not do enough to help salmon recovery.

In fact, according to the Public Power Council, salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin have been improving due to a combination of ocean conditions, better fish passage survival at the dams, improvements in freshwater habitat, harvest reforms, and predator control. More than $15 billion spent by ratepayers to support salmon recovery since the 1970s, has had meaningful results. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) reports that yearling Chinook salmon and steelhead smolts have a 96-99% survival rate through each of the four lower Snake River dams.

What is actually in question is whether the judge’s forced spill order will aid or hurt juvenile salmon because it would increase the levels of gases that can be dangerous enough to give young fish the “bends.”

Our legislation is Congress’ effort to exercise our constitutional legislative authority to override a faulty decision by a single judge that has enormous consequences for a federal water system and the communities that depend on it.

H.R. 3144 was approved in a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives of 225 to 189, with eight Democrats joining in support. Now that legislation would require action in the U.S. Senate to move forward, and I have been urging senators to listen to the people who live, work, and pay for electricity in the Mid-Columbia.

House approval for bipartisan H.R. 3144 shows that we have harnessed strong support for dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, I will continue to make the case that the Mid-Columbia deserves to be heard to preserve our fish species and our dams.

Dan Newhouse is a representative in the 4th Congressional District of Washington.