Electric utilities pour money into campaign to build support for Lower Snake River dams

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The Northwest Electric Utilities has poured more than $2 million into a public relations campaign to convince locals that breaking four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River is a bad idea.

Proponents of the dam fear they have not done enough to counter other campaigns by environmentalists, tribes and salmon advocates who are advocating for the removal of the dam to reclaim Snake River salmon runs listed for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

“The trend is not our friend,” said a March 10 fundraising presentation citing poll results indicating a six-year increase – from 12% to 29% by 2021 – in public support. to the breaking of dams in southeastern Washington.

Campaign goals include creating a “mass mobilization” for grassroots activities, rallying opposition to any legislation that seeks to breach the Lower Snake dams, and changing the narrative about dams among “progressive ridings,” according to the presentation developed by the Northwest RiverPartners, an association of electric utilities and cooperatives that organized the campaign.

The public relations blitz unfolds during a year of escalating debate — and political tension — over the fate of the dams that, on average, generate about 10% of the electricity in the federal Columbia Basin hydroelectric system. .

A June 9 draft report released by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray found the breach offers the best chance to recover salmon in the Lower Snake, increase fishing opportunities and meet responsibilities. federal to the tribes. The study did not take a position on whether this should happen and estimated the cost of replacing the dams at between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion.

Campaign supporters fear a significant hike in electricity prices. They also fear an increasingly unreliable, more outage-prone grid if solar, wind and battery storage replace dams. Their campaign promotes the retention of dams to ease the transition to a 21st century without carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Northwest RiverPartners’ presentation outlining the campaign listed contributions of nearly $2.16 million from 17 utility and cooperative nonprofits in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho. The Washington Grain Commission, whose members benefit from the barge traffic made possible by the dams, contributed $25,000, and the Washington Potato Commission, whose members benefit from irrigation water from the Lower Snake Dam basins, also contributed $25,000. contributed $25,000.

A slide in the presentation mentioned a fundraising goal of $4-6 million. Northwest RiverPartners did not respond to a request for an updated statement of contributions.

“It should come as no surprise that an advocacy group made up of community-owned utilities is standing up for its ratepayers,” Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said in a written statement. “Our collective investment in educating the public about what is at stake with dam failures is less than pennies on the dollar compared to the cost to the climate and taxpayers if we lose these dams.”

Public services direct donations

In March, South-Central Washington’s Benton Public Utility District (PUD) was the campaign’s biggest contributor, donating $600,000.

Rick Dunn, Benton PUD general manager and Northwest RiverPartners board member, said Snake River’s four dams supply about 10% of the utility’s annual energy consumption delivered to 56,289 metered connections.

The Benton County PUD has operating income of $163.4 million in 2022, and Dunn said current threats of dam failures warranted the donations, which were approved in a unanimous council vote. in January. Benton County made an initial donation of $300,000 and then matched other contributions for an additional $300,000.

“We don’t take it lightly to spend that kind of money, obviously, on something like this effort,” Dunn said. “It’s definitely something, historically, that we’ve never done… It wasn’t kind of a simple, easy decision.”

In March, Kalispell, Montana-based Flathead Electric Cooperative and Washington’s Franklin Public Utility District tied for second-largest contributions. Each brought in $240,000.

In a statement, Mark Johnson, general manager of Flathead, said protecting the dams was “absolutely essential to protecting the interests of our more than 56,000 members in northwest Montana.”

Later this summer, Murray and Inslee are expected to decide whether or not to support removing the dam. One of the goals of the Northwest RiverPartners campaign is to “dissuade” them from taking this position.

Utility officials who have helped the campaign fear an attempt to gain Congressional authorization to remove the blockades could come before the November election, according to a memorandum prepared for Benton PUD ahead of the vote authorizing his 600,000 donation dollars.

The success of such an effort seems like a long shot.

But, Dunn said: “We’re really concerned that it’s taking legs, and that [campaign] spending is long term. Maybe that’s something we need to do in the future.

A long-term fight

The Northwest RiverPartners campaign was pitched to utilities in an effort to thwart pro-dam-breaking public relations by the Idaho Conservation League, Earthjustice, and other environmental groups. The campaign “team” includes Rick Desimone, Murray’s former chief of staff, and Global Strategy Group, a public relations firm that has often consulted with Democratic candidates as well as Amazon and some tech companies.

The campaign began in May and included TV spots, print ads and social media.

A television ad states “Climate change is here” and notes the role of the Lower Snake dams in maintaining power during the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave. It goes on to say, “The only way to replacing the dams would be to burn fossil fuels, which would further aggravate the impacts of climate change.”

Still, there are proposals to phase out the four Lower Snake dams by adding more solar and wind power and providing energy sources that don’t rely on burning coal, natural gas, or oil. The cost of such an effort, and the time it would take as part of a broader transition from fossil fuel power generation, has been the subject of considerable study and debate.

The ads drew rebuttals from dam removal advocates.

“They are standing for a status quo that has failed fish, tribes and many communities,” said Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Idaho Conservation League and American Rivers. “The campaign pushes fear, and we want it to be different. We are interested in dialogue, but it must be done in good faith.

Billions have been spent trying to restore threatened and endangered salmon tracks in the Columbia Basin, and a massive effort has been made to supplement wild tracks with hatchery fish.

Environmental groups, representatives of the sport fishing industry and tribes with salmon treaty rights have been engaged in more than 20 years of battles in federal courts focused on restoration efforts and operations of the hydroelectric system. There is currently a hiatus in litigation for out-of-court negotiations. And salmon advocates hope it will boost the chances of congressional action this year and have mounted their own public relations campaigns.

A full-page ad published this month in the Seattle Times from the Salmon Orca Project, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Yakama Nation stated, “We can replace the services provided by the dams and ensure that no community gets left behind.

On Saturday in Portland, a flotilla of kayaks, canoes, fishing boats and rafts took part in a “Rally for the Salmon”, organized by conservationists, tribes and fishermen, to show their support for removal of the dam.

“If we do nothing as temperatures rise in our rivers and the ocean becomes more hostile to our anadromous fish species, we will face extinctions for our fisheries,” said Jeremy Takala, board member of the Yakama nation. He called it “cultural damage that we could never repair,” according to a statement from Columbia Riverkeeper, which helped organize the event.

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