Once again, lawmaker introduces bill to study dam breaching

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim McDermott says he's no Don Quixote.

But for the fifth time the Seattle lawmaker has introduced legislation that likely will go nowhere, puts his Democratic colleagues from Washington in an awkward position and sharpens the focus on Snake River dam breaching just as the Obama administration prepares its salmon recovery plan.

"This is not some wild, crazy children's crusade," McDermott said of his bill, which requires the National Academy of Sciences and four federal agencies to study if removing four lower Snake River dams would restore salmon runs in the rivers and authorizes the secretary of the Army to remove the dams, although it doesn't require the secretary to act.

McDermott faces fierce opposition on Capitol Hill.

"It irritates me when a member who doesn't live in my district wants to do something like this," said Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from eastern Washington, who said the dam breaching campaign is being orchestrated by "extremists" who won't be satisfied until the dams are removed.

Of the 23 House members co-sponsoring McDermott's bill, Hastings said only one, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., is from the Northwest, and the others are mostly liberal Democrats from the East Coast and California. As the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, Hastings has pledged to block McDermott's bill.

McDermott is undeterred, saying that while he is on friendly terms with Hastings, he can't think of one logical argument he could make that would change Hastings' mind. He likens Hastings and his eastern Washington constituents to members of the Flat Earth Society.

"They never would have sailed out of sight of land because they think the earth is flat," he said.

But even as the heated rhetoric flies, there are potential political and policy implications for McDermott's bill.

Noticeably missing from McDermott's list of supporters are three of the state's most influential Democrats: Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Rep. Norm Dicks. Aides for all three declined to comment on McDermott's bill.

But all three risk offending environmentalists, a critical part of the Democratic base in Washington state, who strongly support dam breaching.

Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said his group was "certainly aware" that McDermott has no support from his colleagues, especially singling out Murray, who is up for re-election next year.

"We're not sure what she's thinking," Ford said. "This is not 1998-99 anymore. Not everyone in eastern Washington opposes dam breaching."

Political analysts say that while a majority of Washington state residents describe themselves as environmentalists, few name specific environmental issues as a priority when asked about the nation's most pressing problems.

Dam breaching has never come up in the annual Washington Poll, said Matt Barreto, the poll's executive director. But Barreto cautioned that environmentalists are an important constituency.

"They can tap into a huge network and can drive turnout," Barreto said. "In a close election, that could be a risk."

McDermott said he understands the problems he is creating for fellow Democrats.

"They don't want to be blamed for opening this up," he said. "I understand this is a tough, tough, tough decision, but this is not the end of the western world."

Hastings said "most of my colleagues in the Northwest hope this issue will go away."

One of McDermott's few supporters is Jean-Michel Cousteau, the eldest son of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, who recently urged the Obama administration to breach the dams in order to restore the salmon runs, which are an important food source for endangered Puget Sound killer whales.

"I strongly urge you to bypass the Snake River dams, whose functions can be fulfilled by other means, in order to save our orcas and our wild salmon," he wrote in a letter earlier this month to Jane Lubchenco, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lubchenco and her boss, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, are reviewing the Bush administration's plan for protecting Snake and Columbia river salmon runs, which made no mention of dam breaching. The Obama plan has to be submitted to U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland by Sept. 15. Redden has suggested that any plan needs to probably include at least a dam breaching contingency.

As governor of Washington state, Locke opposed dam breaching.

Hastings said Redden is close to becoming a "judicial activist" and should be "interpreting the law, not making it." In addition, Hastings said, McDermott's bill would jeopardize a carefully crafted compromise that called for a number of actions, including habitat improvements and more salmon-friendly operation of the region's dams, but made no mention of dam breaching. The compromise has strong support around the region and became only possible after the Bush administration insisted dam breaching was not an option.

"My fear is the agreement would fall apart if there is even a whisper of dam breaching," Hastings said.

McDermott said it should be up to Congress and not a federal judge to set such policy, and that's why he has again introduced his bill. He also said it's hard to understand why opponents of his bill won't even allow studies on dam breaching.

"The opponents are so crazed they don't even want to talk about it," McDermott said.