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Upset continues over Snake River dam plan

by By KATE HESTON Daily Inter Lake
| February 2, 2024 7:00 AM

The Flathead Valley, heavily reliant on hydropower, will face an energy crisis if an agreement to remove four dams on the lower Snake River moves forward, according to officials with Flathead Electric Cooperative.

“This is a big threat to the electricity you all now enjoy, some of the cheapest in the country. It’s a big deal,” Mark Johnson, general manager of Flathead Electric Cooperative, told local business leaders at an Evergreen Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday.

The Biden administration is considering a plan that could lead to the removal of four Snake River dams, which Flathead Electric officials contend would increase rates for members. Negotiations for the plan took place between the four Columbia River Treaty tribes, and Oregon and Washington.

Montana and Idaho were omitted from the discussions despite their location at the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin, Johnson said. The basin itself is 258,000 square miles, with the Hungry Horse Reservoir at its head.

The Snake River is the main tributary of the Columbia River and the four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dams that the Biden administration is looking to remove are capable of generating around 3,500 megawatts of electricity per year, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

On average, the four lower Snake River dams produce 1,004 average megawatts each year, according to the Bonneville Power Administration.

If the dams were removed, that electricity would have to be replaced. Wind and solar energy could be used to offset the loss, but would not offer the constant supply Flathead residents get with hydropower, Johnson said. He described wind and solar sources as intermittent.

“If you guys think Flathead Electric is going to solve this problem you’re wrong. Ultimately it’s back to you, the ratepayers,” he said, calling on customers to lobby against the dam removal proposal.

Flathead Electric Cooperative, which has seen an 11% increase in customers since 2018, is the second largest electricity provider in Montana. Around 96% of power generated by the Bonneville Power Administration is carbon-free owing to the hydro dams, Johnson said.

Given population growth and the prospect of dam removal, Flathead Electric officials are worried about supplying carbon-free energy to the valley in the long term while keeping rates low, Johnson said.

The Columbia River system, specifically the Snake River, has been the center of a protracted, yearslong legal battle in federal court over salmon fisheries. Litigation was paused in recent years while the federal government engaged in mediation with a coalition of environmental and tribal groups.

The proposal to remove the dams addresses tribal treaty rights to a viable salmon fishery within the Columbia River basin. The dams, environmental and tribal groups say, decimated the Snake River’s population of salmon and steelhead. Removing the dams would benefit those populations, supporters argue.

The issue has garnered national attention.

“I am fully opposed to the breaching of the Snake River Dams. Full stop,” wrote Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in a letter read by his regional director Chad Campbell during the luncheon.

Tester raised concerns about the future of local small businesses and cooperatives if the dams were removed, which he described as the “blood of Montana’s economy.” He criticized the omission of Montana at the negotiating table and insinuated deep concerns about the transparency of the plan.

Steve Howke, the Northwest Montana regional director for Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke’s office, also spoke at the luncheon, stating that the Western caucus and Montana’s delegation plans to get together to address the issue.

“Our stance is very much in support of Flathead Electric and we adamantly oppose the deal on this,” Howke said.

If the leaked decision to remove the dams is approved by the courts, it would still need congressional approval. In its place, new sources of electricity generation would need to be created, Johnson said.