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Commentaries and editorials

Public Meetings on the Dams
End Successfully After Digital Pivot

by Kurt Miller and Scott Rhees
Tri-City Herald, April 10, 2020

J-17 on the last day of 2018. On March 31st, the final public teleconference on the fate of the lower Snake River dams was met with an abundance of passionate callers.

Each of the six phone-in meetings were part of a 45-day public comment process on the Columbia River System Operations (CRSO) Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Extra attention has been drawn to the CRSO DEIS because it is the first time in 20 years that the federal agencies have examined the possibility of dam breaching.

Between our two organizations, we participated and provided comments during each of the four-hour calls. Originally scheduled as in-person public meetings, the outbreak of COVID-19 required a format change.

While some pro-dam breaching groups and elected officials have asked for an extension of the public comment period to allow for in-person meetings, several others believe that this new format was actually a success.

We agree with the latter.

Originally the meetings were scheduled for: Lewiston, Idaho; Kennewick, Wash.; Spokane, Wash.; Kalispell, Mont.; Seattle, Wash. and Portland, Ore.

While geographically diverse, many people wouldn't have been able to attend these meetings due to mobility limitations, financial constraints, or timing conflicts. An unintended benefit to the new format is that it provided an opportunity for more accessible participation.

The last teleconference alone had almost 200 listeners, 90 of whom chose to provide comments. The federal agencies extended the call by an extra hour so everyone could have their say. Over 2,500 written comments have already been submitted, with more expected by the April 13 deadline.

Before the DEIS was publicly released, the federal agencies also worked closely with Northwest Native American tribes as sovereign cooperating agencies. This allowed the agencies to include their extensive input in the study. This is another example of how the agencies have worked to ensure all points of view were heard. Some argue that the pandemic has people focused on health and financial concerns, thereby limiting the number of participants. It’s impossible to know the exact impact this has had on participation, but our hearts are with everyone who is struggling right now.

However, it’s important to understand how the federal agencies use the contributed comments. This process is not designed to be a popularity contest or a political rally, but instead to invite substantive comments that shed new light on issues the agencies may have missed in their draft report. This is a science-based effort and the agencies are looking for gaps in their analyses rather than opinions.

Accordingly, with written and verbal comments already likely approaching 3,000, the federal agencies feel they have a sufficient sample size to move forward in an informed manner.

While we hope that we can return to normal life sooner than later, we also must acknowledge that the future of public gatherings is entirely uncertain until the spread of COVID-19 can be halted. An extension of the public comment period to allow in-person gatherings would require an indefinite extension and disrupt the entire process. It also risks public health to pressure people into attending in-person meetings if the virus is not entirely resolved.

Meanwhile, the people who rely on the river system for their electricity, water, and other needs deserve a timely conclusion to the process.

For more information on how to submit written comments, visit Monday, April 13, is the last day to send in online comments.

Related Pages:
We Can Improve Conditions for Salmon and Orcas without Destroying Snake River Dams by Kurt Miller, Statesman Journal, 2/21/20
Public Meetings on the Dams End Successfully After Digital Pivot by Kurt Miller, Statesman Journal, 2/21/20
Get Rid of Dams to Save Salmon? Not So Fast by Kurt Miller, Idaho Statesman, 10/1/19
A Tale of Two Salmon Conferences by Kurt Miller, Post Register, 7/26/19

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest.
Scott Rhees general manager of the Franklin Public Utility District
Public Meetings on the Dams End Successfully After Digital Pivot
Tri-City Herald, April 10, 2020

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