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Lawmakers tour Ice Harbor Dam ahead of Congressional Hearing about potential removal

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(The Center Square) – Prior to a Congressional field hearing Monday, four members of Congress toured Ice Harbor Dam to get a feel for the cost and scale of operations and its place in the local economy, transportation ecosystem, and ecology.

Representatives Cliff Bentz, Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Mike Collins were present for the tour, accompanied by various media members and staff members from several congressional committees.

The field hearing comes just months after Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers critiqued the Biden Administration for secretive arbitration meetings about the Snake River Dam system. Meetings that could result in the removal of all four dams on the lower Snake River, as previously reported by The Center Square.

The tour opened with a presentation from Paul Ocker, Chief of the Operations Division for the Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District.

Ocker delved into the importance of the dam not just as power-generating infrastructure but as part of an economic marine highway system that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the farthest inland port on the western coast of the United States.

“To replace one barge tow that moves through our locks,” said Ocker, describing a string of four barges pushed by a tug that regularly move through the 675-foot-long lock. “You would need the equivalent of 539 semi trucks clogging up our freeways and our airways.”

The presentation also touched on the 600-megawatt capacity of the dam, enough to power more than 420,000 homes when fully loaded, and the $34 million in revenue brought in from that capacity.

Brian Vorheis Operations Project Manager and Lieutenant Colonel Shailin KingSlack from the Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District led a tour of the various facilities of the dam.

The first stop was the fish ladder, where every adult fish is counted as it moves upstream. Next was the powerhouse with each of the six 100 megawatt turbines on display, this was followed by a tour of the deck with the ten enormous spillway gates towering over the water 100 feet below.

The spillways may be the most important feature ecologically, as it’s where advocates for the local salmon population say the most damage is done, something dam operators dispute.

They are indisputably the most important feature for downstream flood control, as well as the only method of upstream and downstream water level control to permit the transit of barges.

Closing out the tour, the final stop was the massive 86 foot wide 675 foot long lock. The lock has a max lift height of 105 feet, but is actually closer to 120 feet deep to accommodate sufficient depth for vessels.

Following the hearing, Representatives Bentz, Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers, and Collins then held the Congressional field hearing in the theater of Richland High School in Richland, WA to discuss their findings, communicate with a panel of experts, and hear the thoughts and opinions of the voters in the region that would be affected if the dam was removed.

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