By Ted Case

In a virtual meeting with Oregon’s governor, utility leaders put a human face on those who benefit from Lower Snake River dams

Gov. Kate Brown, pictured here in a February 2020 pre-pandemic photo, met with leaders of Oregon consumer-owned utilities in July via Zoom.
Photo by Lynn Howlett

On July 29, eight consumer-owned utility leaders met via Zoom with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and her key natural resource and energy staff regarding operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System and the importance of the Lower Snake River dams.

The meeting was organized between the governor’s office and representatives of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Oregon Municipal Electric Utilities, and the Oregon People’s Utilities District Association.

Representing Oregon were Libby Calnon, Hood River Electric Cooperative general manager; Todd Simmons, Tillamook PUD general manager; John Dietz, McMinnville Water & Light general manager; Bob Durham, Wasco Electric Cooperative Board of Directors; Keith Hormann, Forest Grove Light & Power general manager; Fred Flippence, Harney Electric Cooperative general manager; Debi Wilson, Lane Electric Cooperative general manager; and Roger Kline, Northern Wasco PUD general manager.

Gov. Brown wrote Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee in early 2020 and claimed “the science is clear removing the earthen portions of the four lower Snake River dams is the most certain and robust solution to Snake River and steelhead recovery.”

This change in position by the state of Oregon was met with surprise by consumer-owned utilities that rely on the Snake River dams for affordable, reliable electricity for more than a quarter of the state’s population.

The July meeting was scheduled for the governor’s office to provide an update and for utility leaders to provide vital information about the dams. Below is a letter sent by the eight aforementioned Oregon utility leaders to Gov. Brown summarizing the meeting and thanking her for her interest.

Letter to Governor Brown

August 4, 2020
Governor Kate Brown
Office of the Governor
900 Court Street Suite 254
Salem, OR 97301-4047

Dear Governor Brown:

Thank you for meeting with us on July 29, 2020, to discuss the vital importance of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) and the Lower Snake River dams to the people of Oregon. As leaders of eight consumer-owned utilities (COUs), we are part of a program that serves over 1 million Oregonians in every corner of our great state with affordable, reliable—and nearly carbon-free—electricity. With all the demands on your schedule, it is truly impressive you could find time to hear our viewpoints about how retaining the Lower Snake River dams aligns with many of your priorities as Oregon’s governor.

We discussed how the removal of the Lower Snake River dams could undermine one of your centerpiece environmental initiatives: a low-carbon future for Oregon. As you know, the Columbia River System Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) concluded that breaching the dams could create a staggering 9% increase in power-related emissions around the Northwest. We noted the importance of a reliable electric grid in the Northwest. The FEIS concluded dam breaching would “more than double the region’s risk of power shortages.” Furthermore, we reminded you of our commitment to salmon recovery through a multi-billion-dollar effort to improve fish passage at the dams, which is meeting targets of 96% survival rates for migrating juvenile fish.

However, we spent most of our brief time together highlighting how removal of the Lower Snake River dams is counter to two of your main priorities: a thriving statewide economy and protecting vulnerable communities and communities of color. Breaching the Lower Snake River dams would have long-term, major, adverse effects on power costs and rates and, as noted in the FEIS, the “rate pressure could be up to 50% on wholesale power rates.” We attempted to put a human face on those Oregonians who would bear the brunt of these rate increases: businesses and industries that help drive our state’s economy—and vulnerable Oregonians who can least afford higher electricity bills. As you contemplate Oregon’s response to the Final Environmental Impact Statement and the future of the Lower Snake River Dams, we hope you will consider the following Oregonians in your decision-making process:

  • The large number of Hispanic families in the Upper Hood River Valley who work in the agricultural sector in farms and cold-storage facilities who help put food on the table for Oregonians.
  • Industrial and agricultural workers—including Oregon’s wine industry—in McMinnville and the surrounding areas. Industries like Cascade Steel are large employers and provide family-wage jobs and can only remain competitive with low-cost
  • Vital industrials along our Oregon Coast, such as dairy farms, lumber mills and commercial/sport The margin for milk and lumber is relatively tight, making affordable electricity exceedingly important.
  • The Warm Springs Indian Reservation has suffered economic dislocation after losing two major employers. Any increase in power rates would be extremely detrimental to the Warm Springs residents and would make the possible reopening of Kah-Nee-Ta Resort even more
  • Urban families in the Portland Metro area served by COUs have been impacted by the housing crisis and face economic For instance, families in Forest Grove have a 53% household rental burden; and in the school district, 60% of the kids receive free and reduced lunch.
  • Rural families in places like Oakridge that were significantly impacted by the downturn of the timber industry have never recovered. The Oakridge School District is the fifth-poorest in the nation, according to the S. Census Bureau.
  • Frontier Oregon families in areas served by Harney Electric Cooperative, which provides electricity to 1,200 members over an immense 20,000-square-mile territory that is bigger than several Many are on fixed incomes, in agriculture or are members of the McDermitt Indian Reservation and could face a power increase of nearly $3,000 a year with the loss of the Lower Snake River dams.
  • Technology industries such as Google data centers that represent an over $2 billion local investment in areas around The Dalles. These energy-intensive companies rely on the low-cost, carbon-free energy provided by the FCRPS.

We very much appreciate your administration’s initial commitment to the Flexible Spill Agreement that is embodied in the Final Environmental Impact Statement’s Preferred Alternative. We urge you to support the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which seeks to meet multiple resource needs through flexible spill operations developed by your staff.

Finally, we are hopeful that our productive meeting on July 30 was not a singular event, but rather, the start of a new, long-term partnership between the COUs and the state of Oregon.

We look forward to working with you and having meaningful input into the Four State Process outlined by your team.