A Balanced Approach is Needed, Not More Litigation

The following remarks are from Dave Markham, general manager of Central Electric Cooperative in Redmond, regarding litigation over the Lower Snake River dams. Wasco Electric Cooperative faces many similar issues.

A lawsuit arguing for maximum spill over the lower Snake River Dams could cost ratepayers up to $100 million if successful. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Not a day goes by that I don’t consider the cooperative’s long-term future and the ability to continue delivering our members clean, reliable, and affordable energy.

Central Electric Cooperative relies on the federal Columbia River Power System for nearly all of its wholesale electricity. However, this renewable, carbon-free resource faces many external pressures undermining its value.

The 20-year legal wrangling over federal agencies’ management of its hydropower system is one such pressure.

This summer, Oregon and special interest groups asked a federal judge to dismantle a 2018 flexible spill agreement negotiated by federal agencies, tribes, and states seeking to balance the needs of salmon and electric ratepayers.

The federal agencies adopted the flexible spill agreement in its 2020 CRPS’ environmental impact statement.

Oregon—which filed a lawsuit challenging the EIS in March—joined a separate legal effort in July to overturn the flexible spill agreement.

The lawsuit asks for maximum water spills on the lower Columbia and Snake River dams to aid fish migration for spawning. The round-the-clock spills would bypass the dams’ turbines and not generate electricity during critical months.

This questionable experiment will disproportionately favor fish with no guarantee of success at the expense of the region’s collective interests. It will adversely affect electric rates and grid reliability and further undermine the Columbia Basin Collaborative, which was created by the governors of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Washington to find a comprehensive working solution for everyone.

Yes, Oregon is part of the CBC while simultaneously engaged in two legal actions against the federal government.

If Oregon’s lawsuit proves successful, the maximum water spill will cost the Pacific Northwest consumer-owned utility ratepayers up to $100 million, with an immediate 5% rate increase in 2022. It will also force dependence on more carbon-intensive energy market purchases to replace lost hydropower at a higher cost.

As for grid reliability, the lower Snake River dams played a critical role in keeping the lights on for millions of consumers during recent extreme weather events. The dams were a crucial energy source during last winter’s Willamette Valley ice storms and the recent heat waves that scorched Oregon.

Taking this generation offline will increase the risk of Northwest blackouts from 6.6% to 30%. That equates to blackouts every three years, which is unacceptable. Oregonians should be highly concerned, given recent blackouts in Texas and California.

Let’s not lose sight of the plaintiff’s overall goal: removing the lower Snake River dams. The most recent legal action, if successful, is only a stop-gap measure. As expressed in the motion, the maximum spills are only an intermediate step “until there is a comprehensive solution that includes restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River.”

Believing we can do better, I added my name to a multi-signatory letter to Governor Kate Brown. The letter urges a comprehensive, balanced approach; foregoing the endless litigation to dictate a preferred outcome; and letting the Columbia Basin Collaborative do its job.

Winston Churchill once said, “Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.” For me, that definitely rings true today and every day.