Dan Burke

While serving Oregon communities as an elected leader is an honor and privilege, it can also be a challenge in today’s politically-charged climate. I can’t help but think much of this distrust is fostered by leaders who can no longer respectfully disagree and work towards compromise for the benefit of all. It’s as if the goal is to mobilize extreme constituencies rather than work together in good faith to seek long-term solutions. It’s in this spirit of collaboration that I ask Gov. Kate Brown to reconsider her recent threat to sue the federal government to remove four lower Snake River dams. Whether you live in Portland or Elkton, there are good reasons to preserve these valuable assets.

The four lower Snake River dams are located in southeast Washington just north of the Oregon border and east of Tri-cities. They generate a significant amount of hydropower, which the Bonneville Power Administration then markets to utilities – like Douglas Electric Cooperative – around Oregon, Washington, Idaho and western Montana. In fact, 95 percent of the electricity consumed by rural electric cooperatives comes from dams in the federal hydropower system. For Oregon alone, the four Snake River dams generate enough electricity to power 500,000 homes. This power is reliable, affordable, and essential to the quality of life in our already struggling rural Oregon communities.

The Northwest has been engaged in a decades-long conversation about the impact dams have on salmon populations. In an effort to thoroughly assess fish impacts, last summer several federal agencies completed a 3-year scientific study on the lower Snake River dams. They concluded the dams’ planned hydropower operations are consistent with federal laws designed to protect fish and wildlife. In response to this finding, the four state governors announced a new process by which all stakeholders will get together and seek a long-term solution to protect the Snake River’s environmental and economic interests. This is the right path forward for all of us. Unfortunately, a month later Gov. Brown filed her intent to sue the federal government and have the dams removed.

The lower Snake River dams are actually a valuable environmental asset. While we may debate how we achieve reductions in carbon emissions, there is overwhelming agreement that this is the right policy goal. Removing the lower Snake River dams makes no sense because hydropower is renewable and 100 percent clean. According to the same federal report, removing the dams will mean replacing this clean power with traditional fossil fuels. They estimate the replacement electricity would increase annual carbon emissions by 3.3 million metric tons (10 percent), or the equivalent of another 712,944 cars on the road. Replacing the power with wind and solar isn’t an option, either. While a clean and valuable part of our electricity mix, they can’t generate the same amount of electricity as the dams. The result? Potential massive rolling blackouts like those we are currently seeing in Texas or even last summer in California. Add to that the potential for power rates to increase by 50 percent in our rural communities. At a time when all of Oregon is focused on environmental and economic issues removing the lower Snake River dams would be a huge step backwards and a costly one.

Holding elected office is about balancing the needs of competing interests, and I certainly understand Gov. Brown’s challenge when it comes to the complex politics of fish and dams. The federal scientific study and underlying facts support retaining these dams, and a four-state process exists to foster collaboration and long-term solutions. This seems like a great time to put aside legal challenges and just talk to one another about moving forward together.

Daniel Burke is mayor of Elkton, Oregon.

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