Four Pacific Northwest lawmakers are pressing the Biden administration for more answers on a possible settlement of long-standing litigation over federal dams on the lower Snake River and their impacts on native salmon and steelhead runs.
In a letter Wednesday, congressional representatives from eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho posed multiple questions over a draft document they said has “vague and imprecise language” that could have “wide-ranging impacts” across the region, including removal of the dams.
The letter was submitted by Republican U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse of eastern Washington – where the four dams are located – along with Russ Fulcher of Idaho and Cliff Bentz of Oregon.
The lawmakers were responding to disclosure of the U.S. government’s “Commitments in Support of the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative and in Partnership with the Six Sovereigns.” The “sovereigns” are the states of Washington and Oregon and Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.
The government’s proposed 34-page mediation agreement was intended to be confidential pending its submission by Department of Justice attorneys to a federal judge in Oregon presiding over a lawsuit brought by the National Wildlife Federation and State of Oregon, Indian tribes, and a coalition of environmental groups against the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Public Power Council, and other defendants.
The lawsuit alleges that a current operational plan for the dams and lower Snake River fails to adequately protect and enhance threatened salmon and steelhead populations migrating between the Pacific Ocean and spawning grounds in Idaho. Proponents of dam breaching say a free-flowing river will restore those runs.
The draft mediation document states that the Biden administration “recognizes the indisputable value and importance of salmon” and that “urgent action is needed to restore their populations to healthy and abundant levels.”
There have been closed-door proceedings involving the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality with selected parties to resolve the lawsuit. A Dec. 15 hearing in federal court is planned to either present a proposed agreement or schedule further proceedings.
McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse have both insisted that Congress must approve any decisions on significantly altering or breaching the federal dams. They are among those who have been highly critical of the mediation process, feeling it excludes many regional interests that could be adversely affected by the outcome. The two representatives have asked for a list of groups and individuals involved in the process, and whether any members of Congress have been consulted or provided written assurances regarding funding.
The USG document acknowledges some considerations “will require congressional authorization.” The document also says it “does not constitute a decision by the USG to support legislation to authorize dam breaching, (but) the USG continues to be committed to exploring restoration of the Lower Snake River, including dam breach.”
The document also refers to an earlier study commissioned by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray as providing “important guidance.” Their draft report released last year concluded that benefits provided by the facilities would cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion to replace.
The four Republican congressional representatives, in their letter to the White House, said it is “imperative that our constituents, whose livelihoods depend on the Columbia River System, have a comprehensive understanding … should the commitments detailed in this document be realized.”
They asked for explanations of provisions:
Separately this week, a trio of executive directors for organizations representing regional public power utilities, port districts, agricultural producers, barge, and business interests blasted the “secret agreement,” calling it “the greatest threat” facing the federal Columbia River Power System “in a way we’ve never seen before.”
The joint press statement was issued by Scott Simms of the Public Power Council, Kurt Miller of NorthwestRiverPartners, and Neil Maunu of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. They said the USG document ignores scientific studies and would undermine clean energy mandates while raising rates on three million electricity customers across the region “without addressing the true cause of salmon declines – the warming, acidifying ocean.”
“The Northwest’s hydropower system is the greatest tool available to fight climate change,” they wrote, contending the USG proposal would eliminate shipping and river transportation and remove over 48,000 acres from food production.
Lower Granite, Ice Harbor, Little Goose, and Lower Monumental dams are located between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston, Idaho. Collectively, they produce an average of 900 megawatts of zero-carbon energy each year, according to a study commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration.
The dams also make a 150-mile stretch of the Snake River navigable between Lewiston and its confluence with the Columbia River, enabling barges to carry wheat and other commodities to ocean ports near Vancouver and Portland. Eliminating the dams would require additional truck and rail transportation, producing more hydrocarbon emissions and increased congestion and wear on roadways.