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Hastings' Hydropower Hearing Raises Questions

Photo: Spill at Bonneville Dam. Photo courtesy: Bonneville Power Authority.
Photo: Spill at Bonneville Dam. Photo courtesy: Bonneville Power Authority.
August 15, 2012

PASCO, Wash. - Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., brings his "Saving Our Dams and New Hydropower Development and Jobs Act" to Pasco for a field hearing today. Conservation groups that could be affected by the bill will be there - but aren't slated to testify.

Hastings calls his bill, HR 6247, "common-sense reform" - although conservation groups disagree. The bill would cut any federal funding to any group that makes legal challenges that could result in less hydropower output, such as dam removal.

Steve Malloch, water-project manager for the National Wildlife Federation, says it's an unnecessary and even extreme approach for a system of aging dams that needs a second look.

"We have 85,000 large dams in the country, many of which have outlived their usefulness, and some of them really ought to be removed. Rep. Hastings' bill makes it perilous for conservation organizations to consider dam-removal advocacy."

The bill aims to increase hydropower output by reducing the amount of water spilled over Columbia River dams to help migrating salmon. Malloch says it creates a loophole that dam operators could easily use to stop spill, by citing possible harm to the fish.

"What this bill does is make it very difficult to spill to benefit salmon. We could see really reduced salmon populations in the Columbia as a result of this bill."

The bill also encourages local development of water-related projects. Malloch says that would allow them to bypass federal environmental scrutiny - and then shift responsibility back to the feds.

"This bill would allow local interests to build any project that had been studied by the Bureau of Reclamation and authorized for study by Congress, and then turn around and ask the federal government to be repaid for building the project. It really turns a century of water project development on its head."

He says this part of the bill is most likely the result of pressure from big irrigators in California who have projects in mind but have been unable to get federal backing for them.

The Hastings bill would make relicensing of existing dams easier. It also classifies hydropower as a renewable-energy source, which could enable Northwest utilities to pay less attention to wind, solar and other alternatives.

Overall, the goal of promoting hydropower is reasonable, says Malloch, but conservation groups believe this bill would remove the current - if sometimes uneasy - balance between power generation and protecting the environment.

Washington now gets about 70 percent of its power from dams.

Today's hearing is to begin at 9 a.m. in Room 2 at TRAC Center, 6600 Burden Blvd., Pasco.

The text of Hastings' bill is online at naturalresources.house.gov.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA