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Ag Stakeholders: Does Biden Salmon
Announcement End Dam Breaching Worries?

by Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, October 3, 2023

The decline in salmon populations began in
1915 to 1922 -- before any dams were built.

Graphic: Wild Chinook runs to the Lower Snake River as counted at the highest dam in place at the time. (1961-2020) Agricultural stakeholders predict federal mediation in a lawsuit over the four lower Snake River dams isn't likely to lead to a call for breaching them, after the White House last week called on federal agencies to review their efforts to save wild salmon and propose new programs.

A coalition of environmental and fishing groups in 2020 sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration over their dam operations plan.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality and Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service are continuing mediation during a stay, which will end Oct. 31.

"It's my opinion that we won't see a dam breaching announcement tied to the end of this mediation," said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which advocates for hydropower. "I think this was probably the last major announcement for the Biden administration on this topic."

The administration recently announced a $208 million, 20-year study of reintroducing salmon on the Upper Columbia River and ordered a 120-day review of how agencies can help restore wild fish runs in the river system.

The BPA, Corps and Bureau of Reclamation, which operate 14 Columbia River dams, are expected to report to the White House budget office with proposals for new programs within 220 days.

When mediation began, ag stakeholders were concerned that the Biden administration would support dam breaching, Miller said.

"They were being asked to essentially endorse the dam-breaching plan," he said. "This memo is really important because it does recognize the importance of salmon, but it also essentially recognizes the importance of hydropower."

Leslie Druffel, co-chair of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association's Inland Ports and Navigations Group, said she's "not panicked, but not jumping for joy." There's still cause for concern and much work to do, she said.

"There's a lot of nuances in the presidential memo -- they're not very clear on exactly what they mean," Druffel said. "Which, that is how presidential memos are often written: Vague enough to not be able to really pin down exactly what it means."

The memo "doesn't lay out reducing operations so that they're obsolete, and it doesn't mention breaching, but there's enough wiggle room in some of the wording that you're just not really quite sure," Druffel said.

But having the Biden administration say how important the fish are, and making sure agency activities match that mission, is a good thing, she said.

Miller also doesn't anticipate the Biden administration will announce "significant" operational changes.

"My perspective of this is the mediation is largely over, and then it will be up to the plaintiff groups to decide whether or not they're going to back to court," he said.

Some plaintiff group members have said they will go back to court if breaching isn't part of the outcome of the mediation, Miller said.

"The science is very clear that (breaching) has to be part of the solution for Snake River salmon, both to reach the healthy and abundant goals that are part of the presidential memorandum, but even to just avoid extinction," said Amanda Goodin, senior attorney for Earthjustice, which represents the anti-dam coalition. "We know that the only way to halt the ongoing generational decline that leads to extinction is to take those dams out."

Agricultural advocates argue removing the dams is not a "silver bullet," and that there's not enough information to warrant dam removal.

If breaching isn't included at the end of the mediation? Goodin said Earthjustice "will have to cross that bridge when we come to it."

"We have been very focused on pushing the federal government to do what's necessary to prevent extinction and restore salmon in the Snake River," she said. "We're not interested in an extinction agreement."

What growers say

"While we are pleased that the Biden administration recognized that dam breaching is not the best solution, we still believe that the interest of all stakeholders should be considered and urge decision makers to understand that reliable research exists, which proves the ability for dams and salmon to coexist," said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. "As we have said all along, we support state and federal investments in science-based solutions that ensure the health of the salmon population while maintaining the integrity of the Lower Snake River Dams."

'Battle isn't over'

Druffel, Miller and other ag stakeholders criticized the federal process, saying they were being left out of mediation sessions despite being intervenor defendants.

Since the extension of the mediation, communication has not improved, Druffel and Miller said.

Miller said he received the recent presidential memorandum and press statement from news reporters before receiving them from the government.

"We're only being told of them after they've already been decided," he said. "That's just not acceptable. We continue to be treated as second-class citizens in this process. ... We're going to continue to make it clear that we need to have a full seat at the table in these discussions."

The presidential memorandum doesn't have any bearing on the mediation, but many people involved in the mediation were working on the memorandum in the background, Druffel said.

"I am positive that they will make a concerted effort in the month they have left to communicate better with stakeholders," she said. "The battle isn't over. We all want fish, and I know we can get there. It's going to take a basin-wide approach, and a holistic view of all the different aspects the fish encounter throughout their life span."

Related Sites:
Joint Motion to Extend Stay US District Court, 8/31/23
Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game v. NAT. MARINE FISHERIES US District Court Oregon, 3/28/94

Matthew Weaver, Field Reporter, Spokane
Ag Stakeholders: Does Biden Salmon Announcement End Dam Breaching Worries?
Capital Press, October 3, 2023

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