Jul 29, 2011 / Energy/Environment

Dams Needed for Flood Control, Affordable Energy

Published in the Davenport Times, Newport MinerDeer Park Tribune, Othello Outlook, Okanogan Valley Gazette, and Odessa Record.

A few weeks ago, I was enjoying a nice dinner at Anthony’s restaurant in Spokane, and as I sat on the terrace, I couldn’t help but marvel at the massive amount of water flowing over the Spokane Falls. I also couldn’t help but think about the potential flooding that would take place in Eastern Washington this year were it not for our dams.

While the Mississippi River and its tributaries are currently spilling over their banks and levees, Eastern Washington is mostly safe from such a disaster.  That’s because of our dams.  Before the dams were built, our region was prone to periodic flooding.  In 1948, persistent rains caused rivers and other waterways to overflow, devastating Pullman, Colfax, and other nearby communities.  While 2011 has been another wet year, there’s little danger of a repeat.

In a very real sense, the Pacific Northwest was built by dams.  Decades ago, they turned what was once a desert into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country.  In addition to providing flood control and transportation, dams also provide the affordable, renewable energy that helped give birth to Boeing and Kaiser Aluminum and then turned them into global leaders in specialized manufacturing.  Now the dams are powering hi-tech data centers in Eastern Washington such as the Titan complex in Moses Lake and the Yahoo, Intuit, and Microsoft data centers in Quincy.

As Congress debates the future of America’s energy policy, it can learn a lot from Eastern Washington’s dams and the hydropower it produces. As the founder of the Congressional Hydropower Caucus, I will spend part of the next few weeks traveling all across Washington State to gain support for using hydropower. Let me give you some reasons why hydro is so important.

First, here in Washington State, hydropower meets 72 percent of our total electricity needs.  And yet, nationwide that number is only 7 percent.  America can do more. 

Second, hydropower is clean and green and an important baseload for solar and wind power.   Unlike other renewables, like wind and solar, hydro is a consistent reliable energy source that produces power regardless of the weather conditions or time of the day.

Third, hydropower is affordable and its capacities are extraordinary.  Existing dam facilities have the potential to double production without the construction of a single dam.  There are more than 54,000 sites across America that have the capacity to generate approximately 12.6 gigawatts of electricity.  Improved technology and turbines not only increase electricity output, but have also resulted in record salmon returns.   Today, there are more fish in the Columbia River than at any time since the first dam was built in 1913.

Fourth, hydropower creates jobs and grows the economy.  A recent study by the Hydro Association found that more than 200,000 jobs can be created in the hydro industry through expansion.  At a time when our economy is still fragile and job creation is stagnant, we should be looking at every opportunity to put Americans to work. The hydropower industry is ready to meet this challenge.

Finally, hydropower supports conservation and agriculture.  In Eastern Washington, hydro plays a critical role in building irrigation districts and ensuring that our wildlife is protected.

Despite its numerous benefits, there is a growing danger that hydropower may be travelling down the same road nuclear energy did decades ago – in which misplaced concerns about environmental safety made nuclear power cost-prohibitive, slowing its growth, and depriving America of fully tapping a great valuable resource.  U.S. District Court Judge James Redden continues to threaten to remove the dams as part of a long-running lawsuit pertaining to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Even now, hydro’s benefits aren’t being fully tapped because of billions of dollars in excessive regulatory costs to mitigate unproven environmental effects.  In the Pacific Northwest, for example, 30 percent of wholesale power rates go to compliance programs for endangered salmon.  The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) estimates they spend about $500 million to comply with the ESA every year. 

By law, the BPA passes all of these costs onto its wholesale customers.  However, a recent poll found that 70 percent of BPA customers either didn’t know how much they paid for salmon recovery or believe that recovery accounted for less than 5 percent of their bill.  I believe they have a right to know how their money is being spent.

That’s why I recently introduced The Endangered Species Compliance and Transparency Act.  This bill would require Power Marketing Administrations – including the BPA – to separate out and report the costs associated with the ESA to each customer.

By empowering consumers with critical information, this legislation will contribute to better decision-making about the use of hydropower and make hydro move available to meet our economy’s growing energy needs.

While there’s a vast array of renewable energies – including solar and wind power – the facts are clear: The future of Eastern Washington’s “clean, green economy” depends on the development of hydropower.  Its value can’t be overlooked.  And its potential cannot be underestimated.  That’s why I will continue do everything I can to promote hydro as your Representative in Congress.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents Washington’s Fifth District in Congress.