PORT ANGELES — After seeing the Elwha River respond to dam removal in its own backyard, the Port Angeles City Council has voted to support the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River.
The vote Tuesday was 5-1 with one abstention to co-sign a letter to U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, that seeks Congressional leadership in finding “win-win solutions” to benefit salmon and orca populations.
“We believe that the science strongly supports restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River as the cornerstone of a lawful and effective recovery plan,” the letter from the Sierra Club says.
“We also believe that working together, Northwest policymakers, sovereigns and stakeholders can develop a set of investments and actions that not only restore salmon and help feed hungry orcas, but also ensure a reliable and affordable energy system and a strong and prosperous economy in the 6th (Congressional) District and across the Northwest.”
Kilmer’s office did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the letter and City Council action.
The letter was co-signed by 206 of Kilmer’s 6th District constituents, including state Reps. Mike Chapman and Steve Tharinger and state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of the North Olympic Peninsula’s 24th Legislative District.
The full text of the letter is available at www.cityofpa.us/583/Meetings-Agendas. Click on the June 2 City Council agenda packet and navigate to page 135.
Snake River dam removal has been a hotly-debated regional issue pitting salmon and orca lovers against those who feel dam removal would raise electric rates and harm an agricultural industry while providing minimal environmental benefits.
“We have two sides that say the science is on their side,” Council member Mike French said during a robust council debate.
Built between 1961 and 1975, the four hydroelectric dams in Eastern Washington have been blamed for declining chinook salmon runs and the starvation of the Southern Resident orcas, which numbered 73 in January.
“The river-blocking hydro is a low greenhouse gas emissions source and is very reliable — part of the reason why we have cheap energy in the Northwest,” Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin said.
“But we also have declining salmon runs all over, and the whole marine ecosystem is beginning to melt down. So we need to address that.”
A federal report released in February rejected the removal of the lower Snake River dams, saying the action would destabilize the power grid, increase greenhouse gas emissions and more than double the risk of regional power outages.
Council member LaTrisha Suggs, who advocated the letter to her colleagues, said the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) was flawed like previous versions that were successfully challenged in court.
“Now they’re on version six of an EIS, and there’s some misstatements in the EIS,” Suggs said.
“Locally, we’ve benefited here in Port Angeles from the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.”
Five of the seven speakers who testified about the letter in two telephonic public comment periods said they favored dam removal.
Council members Navarra Carr, Brenden Meyer, French, Schromen-Wawrin and Suggs voted to sign the letter. Mayor Kate Dexter voted no but agreed to the sign the letter if her colleagues endorsed it. Council member Charlie McCaughan abstained, saying he needed more information.
Proponents of Snake River dam removal say the four lower dams generate only a small fraction — about 4 percent — of the region’s hydroelectricity. The dams have been disastrous for salmon species that struggle to navigate fish ladders and survive in warm-water reservoirs, advocates of dam removal say.
Opponents of dam removal say they, too, want to protect salmon but aren’t sure breaching four dams would help.
Opponents say the dams provide stability for the region’s power supply, irrigation for orchards and vineyards and a navigable waterway that allows wheat and other goods to be barged from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean.
The city of Port Angles, Clallam County Public Utility District and other local utilities purchase wholesale power from Bonneville Power Administration.
“We certainly recognize that this is a very complex issue,” said Nathan West, Port Angeles city manager.
“Staff would really encourage council to dig into the facts to make sure that you all feel very comfortable with the facts.”
McCaughan said it was “concerning” that the council had not heard from those who support keeping the dams.
“I have questions I want answered, but I’d like to hear answers from both sides,” McCaughan said.
Suggs said the Elwha River restoration project, which included the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams from 2011 to 2014, has allowed salmon and steelhead to return to their native habitat.
“Eighty acres of nearshore habitat has been restored,” added Suggs, a restoration planner who worked on the Elwha project.
“We saw Dungeness crab move back into the habitat right there at the mouth of the Elwha River.”
Schromen-Wawrin said species are going extinct because of shifting habitat envelopes.
“For a long time, the way that we used land or the sea was really the way that species were driven into extinction,” said Schromen-Wawrin, a constitutional attorney.
“And then maybe a couple decades ago, scientists started to see that natural habitat variability, these envelopes of where these species can live, were starting to shift faster than species could migrate themselves because of climate change.”
“We shouldn’t be destroying habitat to get to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
“I’m really bothered by how we can be focused on maybe one metric such as greenhouse gas emissions and ignore the larger picture of why we’re trying to reduce that metric and ignore the ecosystem services.”
French said the letter from the Sierra Club was asking for political leadership, not an immediate destruction of the Snake River dams.
“My unpopular opinion about climate change is that we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to energy generation if we want to actually reverse, or get to that level of climate change, that we think is adaptable to,” French said.
“So I don’t like removing options that are non-fossil-fuel related.”
French said he would be “uncomfortable” removing hydroelectricity from the region’s energy portfolio but recognized that protecting habitat was a core reason to work to combat climate change.
“Me, as a personal politician, I have no problem signing this letter and asking our Congressional representation for political leadership,” French said.
“I do feel a responsibility to our ratepayers,” French added.
“So I have some qualms about signing it as a council.”
Carr said people from all walks of life and political spectrums have signed the Sierra Club’s letter.
She added that the orca is an “iconic symbol” for the region.
“I truly believe that we need to think about, and be the voice for, our environment and our ecosystem when they can’t speak,” Carr said.
Meyer said the Snake River dam debate had become shrouded in fear.
“It’s really hard to make decisions like that when people are trying to fear you into making a decision,” Meyer said.
Dexter said she was “very torn” on the issue.
“On the one hand, even if we got some traction, it’s going to be years before anything happens,” Dexter said of dam removal.
“On the other hand, I don’t know how BPA negotiates. I don’t know enough about all of that to know if making this decision politically impacts staff’s ability to negotiate a fair rate for us.”
The Tuesday council meeting can be viewed on YouTube.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.