Hearing on Hastings' Bill Points Up
PASCO -- Using his hometown soapbox to hammer away at those who would remove hydropower dams, U.S. Rep. Doc Hasting on Wednesday gaveled a congressional committee to order on legislation that would dramatically limit the use of federal funds for dam-removal efforts.
Hastings' "Saving Our Dams and Hydropower Development and Jobs Act of 2012" would strip funding from environmental groups that want to remove hydropower dams and prohibit the use of federal dollars to remove them drew pointed comments at a field hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee.
"The threat to the Snake River and other dams is very real," U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings said in opening statements. The measure is HB 6247.
But opponents of the bill, including environmental, fishing and American Indian groups, say it would punish advocates who call for the removal of obsolete dams that hurt traditional fish habitats. Consolidating oversight and decision-making over dams into the hands of Congress, as called for in the bill, would only lead to more gridlock of the environmental and economic impact of dams nationwide, witnesses said.
"Every single dam must be considered on its own merits," Glen Spain, Northwest director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said in his committee testimony.
The hearing, led by Hastings and U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., was held in front of a mostly supportive crowd who also attended a previously scheduled "Save Our Dams" rally in the parking lot of the TRAC convention center.
At the heart of the debate are ongoing efforts by salmon advocates to remove dams on the Snake River by the Idaho, Washington and Oregon borders as well as dams on the Klamath River Basin along the southern Oregon and northern California borders.
Removal of those federally owned dams already requires congressional approval, which was given in the case of the Klamath Basin dams despite ongoing efforts by McClintock to stop the federal government from moving forward on the project.
An independent study submitted to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in March found that removal of four dams on the Klamath River river would help salmon runs and irrigation. But to remove them by 2020 would cost between $238 million and $493 million in increased electric rates on consumers.
"Folks in my district are facing enormous cost," McClintock said.
The proposed legislation would also require congressional approval to study or seek the dismantling of privately owned hydroelectric dams on federal land.
In a pointed question to witnesses before the committee on whether the courts should dictate dam removal policy, Hastings pressed the chairwoman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee to answer yes or no when she challenged the basis of his query.
"I do not believe the court is running the policy," said Nez Perce chairwoman Rebecca Miles. "I believe the court is protecting a species (salmon) that cannot speak for itself."
Hastings and other hydropower advocates have criticized a recently retired Federal District judge in Portland who repeatedly rejected government proposals for salmon preservation on the Snake River over the last decade by ruling they were not adequate.
In April, the former judge James Redden told Idaho Public Television he believes the four major dams on the lower Snake River should be removed, drawing allegations from Hastings that Redden made his rulings despite harboring personal views that created a conflict of interest.
But Miles said Redden's rulings did nothing to advance the effort to remove the dams.
"I would say Judge Redden towed the line directly with his inability to order any dam to be breached, especially on the lower Snake River," Miles said.
Witnesses on both sides agreed hydropower is a renewable energy source, and it would be classified as such if the legislation passes. Washington state leads the nation in hydropower production while California has the most hydropower facilities.
Although hydropower accounts for about 8 percent of electricity generated nationwide, Benton County Public Utility District manager Jim Sanders said Northwest dams produce roughly 60 percent of the region's electricity.
"The four dams on the Snake River alone generate enough power to serve one city about the size of Seattle," Sanders said.
Hastings challenged Spain for comments he made that suggest the Fishermen's Association is only seeking to dismantle obsolete or inefficient dams. He asked if the group's involvement in litigation over dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers meant they believe the dams on those rivers are obsolete. Spain did not answer yes or no.
"They're illegal in a variety of ways," Spain said after the hearing, citing the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts as basis for the group's Snake River litigation.
Although the proposed legislation sparked a spirited debate at the hearing and among interest groups around the region, Hastings said the bill is to start a conversation rather than create expectations that it will be enacted.
"I don't really see this legislation moving," Hastings said in an interview after the hearing.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee, said in a prepared statement that the legislation "holds no water."
"This undemocratic bill would create a blacklist for conservation groups Republicans disagree with just because they are exercising their right to challenge the federal government," Markey said.
After the hearing, Spain dismissed the grounds for the legislation and the hearing all together.
"This was your typical congressional dog and pony show field hearing," he said.
A number of Yakima area legislators and county officials made the trek to Pasco. State Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said recent removal of the Elwha and Condit dams raises concerns of what the future will be for communities and industries reliant on irrigation.
"Water will always bring out a crowd," Chandler said.
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