Polk County Commissioners Support Clean Renewable Electric Power
There is nothing more rewarding than public service, particularly when you can give back to a community that has given you so much. Being an elected official brings an added responsibility: leading a broad cross-section of the community toward common solutions. That can be tough. It requires setting aside personal agendas, listening, thinking creatively and advancing a consensus. Perhaps it’s because we see so much of this at the local level, but it seems the idea of bringing people together has lost favor with a lot of state and federal officials. We’re sorry to say even our own Gov. Kate Brown, whom we’ve all worked with and admire, undercut her own collaborative process when she sued the federal government last month over its Snake River Dam operations.
The Snake River Dams are a vital part of the federal hydropower system, which provides 85-95 percent of the electricity in rural communities like Polk County. It is essential to our survival. But the system hasn’t been without controversy. Balancing the economic needs of communities like ours with the needs of salmon populations has led to billions of dollars of investment and dramatic changes to dam operations. A 3-year, court-mandated scientific study released last year was the most exhaustive analysis of this challenge ever conducted. It recommended retaining four Snake River dams and taking additional steps to help salmon. In the wake of this decision, Gov. Brown announced the creation of a multi-state group of stakeholders tasked with developing a long-term agreement borne out of collaboration and compromise. It was the right move. Unfortunately, on March 4, 2021 – one week after her group met for the first time – Gov. Brown sued the federal government to overturn their decision and breach the dams. In short, she chose litigation over collaboration.
Why does this matter to Polk County? Because every rural community served by a public utility enjoys the reliable, affordable power provided by dams. The federal study released last year reached two troubling conclusions. First, its analysis determined that breaching the Snake River Dams could increase the cost of our power by as much as 50 percent. That’s because hydropower is inexpensive, and the substantial amount of power generated by the Snake River Dams would have to be replaced with more expensive energy sources. Second, it estimates breaching the dams will increase the Northwest’s carbon dioxide emissions by 3.3 million metric tons, which amounts to 9 percent above current levels. The lawsuit to breach the dams makes no economic or environmental sense, particularly when the federal government’s own science provides a road map for how to move forward.
Electricity is extremely important in rural communities because we tend to not have natural gas infrastructure as a secondary energy source. In Polk County, for instance, only 35 percent of homes use gas heat. Compare this to Multnomah County, where 50 percent use gas for heat. The point is we are much more impacted by electric rate increases and power outages than urban areas, where people can still cook or heat their homes when severe weather impacts the electric grid.
People have been suing each other over dams and salmon for decades, and we’re no closer to a solution. That’s why we were so hopeful about Gov. Brown’s multi-state collaborative group and so concerned about her decision to undercut it with yet another lawsuit. The courts have failed us; it’s time for collaboration and compromise. We urge Gov. Brown to drop her lawsuit and recommit to a process that gives a voice to rural communities like Polk County.
Craig Pope, Mike Ainsworth, and Lyle Mordhorst
Polk County Commissioners