The House has sent a bill aimed at protecting dams on the Columbia and Snake river system to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
HR 3144 passed through the House 225-189.
The bill would halt any “structural modification, action, study or engineering plan” restricting electrical generation at any federal Columbia River system hydroelectric dam or limiting navigation on the Snake River in Idaho, Oregon or Washington unless a proposal is authorized by an act of Congress.
Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Reps. Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden of Oregon sponsored the bill. All are Republicans except Schrader, who is a Democrat.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray has voiced opposition to the bill, expressing concern that it forces use of a 2014 biological opinion that was found to be “flawed” by a federal judge.
In May 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ruled that the biological opinion did not satisfy requirements of the Endangered Species Act and violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration to conduct a review of the river system to develop a new opinion, slated to be in place September 2021.
BPA does not comment on pending legislation, agency spokesman Michael Hansen said.
Murray has said the bill undercuts the agencies’ ability to properly review river system operations.
The bill would codify the 2014 biological opinion until 2022, McMorris Rodgers said during a conference call.
The NEPA process can continue, said Jared Powell, spokesman for McMorris Rodgers. Agencies have yet to confirm alternatives they are pursuing during the environmental impact statement, he added.
Newhouse said there’s “no question” that getting the bill through the Senate will be a challenge. But Murray also supports infrastructure in the form of dams on the river, he said.
He said he’s “hopeful” the continuing conversation and input from stakeholders will mean the river system can move forward and improve operations while avoiding higher power costs, he said.
McMorris Rodgers said she hopes the Senate “takes serious consideration” of the bill, noting it’s been a 20-year process through the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations to come up with a biological opinion that satisfies the Endangered Species Act.
Newhouse said the bill maintains a plan developed by Northwest experts and stakeholders to protect salmon and continue the region’s ability to provide clean, renewable, affordable hydroelectric power.
“It is my humble opinion that the experts — the scientists, the biologists, the engineers, all of the professionals at our federal agencies and working at our dams — should be the ones deciding how best to manage this system and not just one single person, a judge in Portland, Ore.,” Newhouse said.
McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse say Simon’s 2017 court order — which requires federal agencies to increase spill from Columbia and Snake River dams — would cost utility rate payers roughly $40 million each year in higher electrical rates. The order would have “devastating” impacts on agriculture, transportation, flood control and irrigation, Newhouse said.
The spills would lead to increased dissolved nitrogen and other gases in the water and harm the fish Simon seeks to protect, Newhouse said.