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Washington state leaders offer incremental progress toward one day removing Snake River dams

Environmentalists say breaching the dams is critical for Pacific Northwest salmon populations; power utilities argue they're a necessary source of clean energy.
Credit: AP
FILE - The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax, Wash., on May 15, 2019. The Biden administration has released two reports arguing that removing dams on the lower Snake River may be needed to restore salmon runs to historic levels in the Pacific Northwest. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. — In recent years, there's been a growing push from environmentalists to remove four dams on the Lower Snake River in southeastern Washington to help rejuvenate salmon populations. The dams are located near where Snake River flows into the Columbia. 

On Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee came out with a long-awaited report that says it's not feasible to tear down the dams right now — but it could be in the future. 

The Army Corps of Engineers built the dams back in the 1960s and '70s. Environmentalists are concerned that salmon runs in the river will go extinct, along with the orcas in the Puget Sound that feed on the salmon, if the dams aren't removed. 

Public utilities, on the other hand, want to keep the dams because they generate dependable, renewable energy. 

Earlier this year, ads funded by the utilities pushing back against the dam removal started running in the Pacific Northwest. The future of the dams evolved into a bitter fight and a big lawsuit. 

RELATED: Inslee, Murray recommend taking action to make breaching Snake River dams a 'viable option'

That's why Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee got involved — to address the conflict and figure out what options were available. They took input from thousands of people, including communities, tribes and "other stakeholders."

According to the report, they found that with "adequate investment and coordination, it is possible to replace most of the services and benefits provided by the dams" if they were to be breached. 

The report also acknowledged that the benefits provided by the dams must be replaced or mitigated before the dams are taken down, which essentially means that breaching the dams is "not a feasible option in the near-term."

"Replacing the energy production of the Lower Snake River Dams is achievable given our existing commitments, the amount of regional clean energy generation already in development, and the federal resources available. But moving from the realm of the possible into reality requires getting these resources built in an effective, efficient manner," the report says. 

So what comes next?

Murray and Inslee pledged to take steps to move forward with the removal process — things like improving fish passages for salmon and creating a better habitat. Inslee also pledged to build clean energy resources and put up power lines to deliver that energy, but he and Murray offered no timelines or guarantees. 

RELATED: Salmon could make a comeback if lower Snake River dams are breached, new research finds

This conclusion was closely watched by environmentalists and power utilities.

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest River Partners, a trade group that represents more than 100 community-owned power companies in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.

His group wants to keep the dams, and he's pleased that political leaders found it was not feasible to tear them down anytime soon. 

"And that's the message that we've been trying to share all along is like, listen, we understand what people are trying to do and salmon are super important, but there are other things that are also super important in terms of trying to achieve our clean energy goals and keep electricity costs affordable and provide irrigation to farmers," he said.

The electric industry often argues that the power from the four dams is critically important for the region, and political leaders agreed with them for now. 

As far as how much energy the dams produce, Miller said about 4-5% of the power in the Pacific Northwest comes from the Lower Snake River dams. That percentage is likely to grow in the coming years as more coal plants shut down. 

The energy generated by the dams is important because it's more dependable than wind turbines, for example, which only make power when the wind blows, or solar that only makes power when the sun is shining. And industrial batteries aren't good enough yet to store significant amounts of energy. 

It may also come as a surprise that environmentalists saw the report as a victory as well. 

Pam Clough is an advocate with Environment Washington, which is fighting to protect salmon and orcas in the Puget Sound, and she supports tearing down the dams. 

"I'm really comforted that Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee have publicly recognized that extinction of salmon and orcas are unacceptable and that they are committed to finding a viable way to breach the Lower Snake River dams," Clough said. 

RELATED: White House: To help salmon, dams may need to be removed

"There are many scenarios on the table that can replace the energy these dams provide," she added.

Miles Johnson, senior attorney with the conservation group Columbia River Keepers, also supports removing the dams. 

"So this is a form of progress," he said. "You know, five years ago, no politician in the Pacific Northwest would say 'Snake River dam removal' out loud," he said. 

Columbia River Keepers is part of a federal lawsuit to try to get the dams torn down. All sides involved in the lawsuit have taken a pause to see how things shake out, but Johnson said ending that pause is a possibility if there is no action toward solutions. 

"I think what we're disappointed in is the lack of a plan for replacing the dams' electricity ...and the lack of any clearly defined goal for what replacement looks like," he said. "You know, Columbia River Keepers, and more broadly most of the proponents for dam removal, we've never said just bulldoze the dams out and forget about the consequences. It's always been about a comprehensive solution that invests in renewable energy in the Northwest and replaces the power and benefits of those dams, but we need to make a plan to do that."

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