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GOP Lawmakers Ramp Up Pushback on
Snake River Dam Deal Still in the Making

by Lynda Mapes
Seattle Times, November 30, 2023

The agreement identifies hundreds of millions of dollars of federal grants and loans
as potential funding sources to tribes for development of alternative energy resources

In this file photo taken Sept. 24, 2014, water flows through a fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington state. (Dean Hare/The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via AP) Republican lawmakers on Wednesday released a confidential, draft mediation agreement developed during recent high-stakes talks over the future of dam operations on the Lower Snake River.

The draft agreement says the government will help plan and pay for tribes in the Pacific Northwest to develop enough clean energy resources to serve as replacement power for the Lower Snake River dams, whether or not Congress authorizes dam removal.

The draft also includes billions of dollars in funding for analyzing the region's energy needs, improving transportation infrastructure, making the power grid more resilient and restoring salmon, steelhead and other native fish runs in the Columbia River basin.

Mediation in the court case is still underway and the stay of litigation expires Dec. 15. The negotiations are being led by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Such negotiations -- and draft mediation documents developed during the talks -- are always confidential, under rules that govern the talks.

The members of Congress are not parties to the talks and released the document, along with a letter to President Joe Biden, seeking clarification on everything from what science the document relied on, to how the agreement would affect reliability of energy supplies and how the agreement would be funded.

The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, of Washington; Cliff Bentz, of Oregon; and Russ Fulcher, of Idaho, all Republicans.

The lawmakers said in their letter to Biden they felt compelled to take this step.

"It is imperative that our constituents, whose livelihoods depend on the Columbia River System, have a comprehensive understanding of this document's contents so they can anticipate and prepare for the wide-ranging impacts that will inevitably be felt across the region should the commitments detailed in this document be realized," the letter states.

In addition, they stated, they must perform their duty as members of Congress to provide oversight of the executive branch. They must also ensure nothing has been committed to in the agreement that would circumvent congressional authority over decision-making, such as removal of the Lower Snake River dams, the representatives stated.

"We are on a fact-finding mission to get those answers from President Biden immediately," the four representatives said in a joint statement released Wednesday, along with the letter and agreement.

The dams are at the heart of the dispute.

The Nez Perce Tribe and other litigants contend that dam removal is necessary to prevent extinction of salmon in the Columbia Basin. The members of Congress signing the letter oppose dam removal on the Lower Snake.

The four dams were completed in the 1960s and '70s, and provide multiple services to the region: navigation through locks at the dams all the way to Lewiston, Idaho; enough hydropower to serve a city about the size of Seattle; and irrigation for farmers pumping water from the reservoir behind the most downstream of the four dams, Ice Harbor.

Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray have committed to replacing those services before any commitment to dam removal is made.

The draft agreement, dated Nov. 2, states the agreement "does not constitute a decision by the USG (United States Government) to support dam breaching." However, the document states, "the USG continues to be committed to exploring restoration of the Lower Snake River, including dam breach."

The agreement spells out a proposal under which services from the dams could be replaced, including creation of a Pacific Northwest Tribal Energy Program. Under it, federal technical assistance would be provided to the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes to develop and deploy "clean, renewable socially-just energy resources" in the region. These would be planned as replacement power for the Lower Snake River dams, if Congress authorizes breaching.

The agreement identifies hundreds of millions of dollars of federal grants and loans as potential funding sources to tribes for development of alternative energy resources of all sorts.

The agreement also would shift decision-making for $100 million in fish and wildlife restoration program spending over 10 years to the six sovereigns named in the agreement -- the four tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington. That would upend the status quo, under which programs are selected by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The agreement would also from 2024-2033 continue spilling water over the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers' dams in the spring to benefit out-migrating baby salmon. But it would cut back spill in the summer under certain conditions -- enabling the Bonneville Power Administration to sell more power into the lucrative summertime power market.

Dam-breaching opponents piled on criticism of the proposed agreement in statements released Wednesday.

Scott Simms, CEO and executive director of the Public Power Council, called the agreement "the single greatest threat to the vitality of the region's hydropower system we have ever faced."

Northwest RiverPartners, a trade association of river users, including utilities and industries, stated the agreement "undermines the future of achieving clean energy mandates and potentially raises the rates of electricity customers across the region."

In a joint statement, the executive directors of Northwest RiverPartners; the Public Power Council, which represents public utilities, and the Pacific Northwest Waterway Association, which represents barge companies and other users of the waterway, stated they have been shut out of the negotiations.

Ryan Redmond, CEO of Benton Rural Electrical Association, also released Wednesday a letter to U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary David Turk protesting the secrecy of the negotiations.

"We are the public servants who will be charged with picking up the pieces and solving the problems caused by these discussions ... we should have been consulted from the beginning."

Some parties to the agreement refused to be drawn in to the fray, declining comment on the letter or criticism of the agreement.

"We are still bound by confidentiality," Shannon Wheeler, chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, wrote in a text message to The Seattle Times.

Lynda Mapes specializes in coverage of the environment, natural history, and Native American tribes.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.
GOP Lawmakers Ramp Up Pushback on Snake River Dam Deal Still in the Making
Seattle Times, November 30, 2023

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