Major energy projects surround the Columbia River Gorge, from the sequence of BPA dams straddling the river’s mainstem to wind turbines lining the hillsides. Now, a renewable energy developer is eyeing another site along the Gorge, twenty miles south of Goldendale in Klickitat County, Washington, for a new hydropower storage project—one that would supply carbon-free renewable energy for the Northwest.

Although the project would help decarbonize the regional economy, it comes with a tradeoff. It would damage an area “of exceptional cultural significance to the Yakama Nation and other tribal nations.”

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Although the project would help decarbonize the regional economy, it would come with a serious tradeoff.

It would damage an area “of exceptional cultural significance to the Yakama Nation and other tribal nations.” The project would also interfere with tribal members’ access to a section of the Columbia Hills used for gathering medicinal and traditional plants, according to Yakama officials, as well as some treaty-protected fishing access.

Rye Development has applied for a license to build a $2 billion pumped storage hydropower facility, to be completed by 2028. With a capacity of 1,200 megawatts of power, company officials say the project, which was recently sold to a Danish investment group, would be a step toward meeting the state’s goal of making its electricity 100 percent carbon free by 2050. In addition, it would provide an important stabilizing function for the region’s power system because it would allow grid operators to generate electricity at times when other sources, like wind and solar, are not producing enough to meet demand.

Here’s how it would work. Rye would build two reservoirs—one adjacent to the Columbia River and one at a higher elevation perched in the Columbia Hills—with water drawn from the Columbia to fill and occasionally refill it. The water would flow downhill through turbines during peak hours to generate electricity while during hours with less demand for power, the water would be pumped back up into the higher reservoir to be stored until the next surge in demand for electricity. According to the project backers, the project would be a closed loop—only occasionally withdrawing water to make up for the effects of evaporation—and it would not emit any carbon.

Pumped hydro storage projects like the one proposed near Goldendale hold promise for delivering clean energy.

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That’s why, despite a fractious history with dams, some environmental advocates have signaled they will push for more hydropower, even working with energy companies on certain projects. After a 2020 dialogue organized by Stanford University, conservation and industry groups identified common aspirations to meet climate targets and transition the energy industry toward renewable power. In October 2020, both sides signed onto an agreement supporting select ideas for using more hydropower, including retrofitting some dams not currently generating power. American Rivers, a conservation group, officials signed onto the agreement, but said the organization will continue to advocate for removal of the four Lower Snake River dams and fight the construction of new dams.

“It is not peace in our times. We’re going to continue to fight battles with the hydropower industry, whether it’s on protecting the authority of states and tribes under the Clean Water Act or on particular dam projects,” American Rivers president and CEO Bob Irvin told KUOW. “That said, what this agreement does, is to build trust—that we actually can find areas to work together.”

The Stanford agreement specifically names “closed loop” storage pumps—the same kind Rye Development intends to use near Goldendale—as a potential solution for storing more renewable energy without building new dams. But location matters.

According to some environmental groups, the Goldendale does not pass muster. American Rivers, Columbia Riverkeeper, Washington Environmental Council, and the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club are urging the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) to deny a key state permit, the “Clean Water Act 401 Certification,” for the project based on its impacts to tribal communities, as well as to the local environment.

The Yakama Nation’s objections are not new. In February 2018, tribal officials sent a letter to Rye Development opposing the project, arguing that it would have “detrimental impacts to significant cultural resources,” known as Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs), that can include things like archeological, ceremonial and burial sites, as well as petroglyphs and monuments, arguing that:

The TCPs present within the proposed project area are but a remnant of what once was along the Columbia River…  It is the responsibility of the Yakama Nation to protect those resources now and in the future for the benefit of those not yet born.

Phil Rigdon, superintendent of the Yakama’s Department of Natural Resources, said the tribe would like to be supportive of green energy goals, but often energy projects come at the cost of the Yakama people’s culture and resources.

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  • Examples include the Goodnoe Hills wind farm near Rock Creek Canyon that limited tribal members’ access to land, food and medicinal plants; dams along the Snake River that decimated salmon runs; and the Hanford nuclear site just 20 miles from the Yakama Reservation. For similar reasons, the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla also opposes the project. (The Umatilla comments were not disclosed to the public in efforts to protect cultural resources.)

    “Every time you turn around, who is the one bearing the costs of all these things? The Yakama people and our resources,” Rigdon said. “That’s fundamentally why we’re not on board.”

    Simone Anter, an attorney for the advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper, said Rye Development should have been aware of the controversial location and what it means to the Yakama Nation because the tribe has previously opposed other attempts to locate energy projects at the site. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2016 rejected two proposals for pumped storage projects in the same area, one proposed by Klickitat Public Utility District and another by Oregon-based Clean Power Development because a reservoir would interfere with cleanup efforts of the aluminum smelter site.

    How should the region’s governments weigh tradeoffs between clean energy and further burdens on native communities?

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    FERC officials in July told Rye Development that its final license application was deficient, and that the agency would need more information to determine the extent of the impact on the cultural resources for both the Yakama and Umatilla tribes. In October, officials also requested that the company conduct an ethnographic study about the impacts on the Nez Perce Tribe.

    The project will face increased scrutiny in 2021. Washington’s Department of Ecology will publish an environmental impact statement in early 2021, and FERC plans to produce its own environmental review in the fall. After the public has had time to review and comment on the analyses, the agencies will decide whether the project should move forward.

    Much like a proposed silicon smelter in northeast Washington, the Goldendale hydropower project raises hard questions and unpleasant tradeoffs. How can the Northwest balance with imperatives of decarbonization and justice? And how should the region’s governments weigh tradeoffs between clean energy and further burdens on native communities?