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Leaked Agreement Shows Federal Government
Willing to Take Down Snake River Dams

by Sage Van Wing
Oregon Public Broadcasting, December 4, 2023

Graphic: Juvenile Salmon survival downstream throught the federal hydropower system. A coalition of environmental groups and tribes who are suing the federal government over the condition of salmon on the Snake River have been in talks with the government for over a month. Those talks are tentatively scheduled to reach an agreement by December 15, but last week, a leaked draft agreement showed that the federal government may agree to take down the four lower Snake River dams. The agreement also revealed federal government commitments to investing in habitat restoration and alternative energy development on tribal lands. The Snake River is the main tributary of the Columbia River, flowing from Idaho and eastern Washington into Oregon. We talk to longtime Idaho journalist Rocky Barker about how we got here, and what the leak could mean for a future agreement.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I'm Dave Miller. There is some big news about the future of electricity, irrigation and salmon in the Columbia River Basin last week. It came in the form of a leaked draft of an agreement between the federal government and a coalition of environmental groups and sovereign Tribes. The coalition is suing over the dismal condition of salmon on the Snake River. The draft outlines what the federal government might do in terms of habitat restoration and alternative energy development, if the four dams on the Lower Snake River are removed. Longtime Idaho journalist Rocky Barker joins us to talk about how we got here and what this leak could mean. Rocky, welcome back.

Rocky Barker: Thank you, Dave. Good to be here.

Miller: I want to start with this agreement, this leaked draft. What are the broad contours of it?

Barker: Well, this is a settlement of a court case that goes back, on and off, since 1993, based on the Endangered Species Act and the federal government has lost every single time this case has been brought up. So they've been working to try to reach a settlement in the latest version. The deadline was November 1st. And so they put it out, and then we never heard anything except that they had given themselves a little more time, until December 15, to announce if there was an agreement. Well, then this settlement leak comes out and the folks on the other side - the energy and farm and irrigation and shippers - came out and released it and said, "Oh no, this is terrible. This is saying that we're going to breach the four lower Snake dams."

And we really don't know what this thing says completely. But I think what is clear is that the Biden administration is going to continue to show the support it has for breaching the four lower Snake dams, which science has long supported. The economics have been there, but culture and politics has not caught up.

Miller: These dams currently provide power to something like three quarters of a million homes. Where would that energy come from if the dams were breached?

Barker: Well, the first place where they'll come from will be…under this proposal, as I understand it, we've already seen it start. The Nez Perce, they have already built a solar array with batteries and they're trying to turn that into enough power to offset the four lower Snake dams. And they're trying to do it with a network of tribes across the Northwest. And it's a really innovative, new way. And since none of us have really seen the big picture of it yet, we don't know, but this plan means this administration is going to support that, and trying to expand it, and there already has been federal funds for that. So that would be the main thing.

But I gotta believe that back in 2021, when Representative Mike Simpson from our state came out and proposed breaching the four dams and making everybody whole, he asked everybody, "Tell us what we can do, what we should do?" And unfortunately, he didn't get very many people from the energy industry or essentially the other side, to step up and tell their ideas. But I do think that when the train starts leaving the station, we're going to start seeing some good ideas. We have seen those kinds of ideas already out of Washington where Senator Murray and Governor Inslee have already said, "We gotta do this." But we need to make sure everybody's whole.

Miller: Well, "whole" equals money. How much money are we talking about, in terms of what the federal government says it might put towards new energy projects if these dams were taken down?

Barker: Well, it's going to be billions of dollars. I'm not sure of an exact number, and how much of it is going to be federal. Some of it might be private, and it won't be just the power. We're going to need to find another way, an alternative for shipping grain to the ocean. We're already seeing some of that, again, in Washington, where they talked about it in the legislature. And so we're seeing the other folks who are affected by taking out these dams are already being addressed, interestingly enough, by the environmental community, who is doing most of the lobbying for it. And the people who have not been made whole are the tribes, because they don't have the fish that are a critical part of their culture.

Miller: Despite tens of billions of dollars in federal infrastructure money over decades, going towards fish passages or hatcheries or a huge infrastructure. It basically has been a colossal failure in terms of fish runs, as we've talked about many, many times over the years. What could all this mean for ratepayers in the Northwest?

Barker: Well, I don't think it's going to mean as much as the naysayers say, but it's going to cost money. But it's going to cost money whether this happens or not. I mean, the big part of this thing to understand is, change is happening, climate change is happening. So that's going to have an effect on these things. Our energy is in the middle of transformation right now. So there's going to be a lot of cost. But we can look on all kinds of sides. One thing, there are alternatives that could include nuclear plants at Hanford. This doesn't have to be one side's view; the other side needs to jump in here and say, "well, we ought to do it this way and we could do it a lot cheaper." I mean, I think that, and the bottom line is, none of this is going to happen until Congress authorizes taking out those four dams.

Miller: This is a key point. I'm glad you got to it. Let's turn to this squarely right now. In other words, any presidential administration cannot unilaterally make this decision.

Barker: No, there are people who argue that they can't. Some of the folks who are the Orca supporters think that it could be done. But most people believe that it's going to take Congress to make this decision.

The Pacific Northwest, as long as I've covered this, has stood together against the rest of the country in support of its interest in terms of public power. So I think the key here is for the region to come together, perhaps behind Patty Murray, perhaps Senator Wyden and others who can get a proposal together that meets everyone's needs.

Miller: So far it doesn't seem like that's happened. You mentioned the proposal put forward two years ago by Idaho's Republican congressman Mike Simpson, who is in favor of breaching the dams. But it doesn't seem like his fellow Republicans in various Northwest delegations are at all on board. What do you see as the Northwest politics right now in Congress?

Barker: Well, I think this is a divided issue. It's been before - everybody agreed, don't breach the dams. We now are starting to see, we've got the governor of Oregon, we've got the governor of Washington, we've got Senator Murray, we've got Mike Simpson. But we don't have anybody else in Idaho politics for this, and there's still some folks in Eastern Washington who are very much against it. So it's a case of making the case for him. And we're going to hear that in the next few weeks, see if the Biden administration reaches out to these people and continues a process that can get people all on the same page.

Miller: How much do we know about who released this draft, and why?

Barker: I don't know who did it. I saw it in an energy publication Clearing Up, so it probably came from the energy side or from the Republican Congress folks over in Eastern Washington.

Miller: But if that's the case, is your thinking that the idea was to scuttle a potential agreement, to build public backlash before December 15th?

Barker: Oh, absolutely. There's no doubt about it. And if you look at the kind of things they're saying, they're not really saying, "It's all bad." They're just saying we ought to have more say in this before they do this. They really need to get us all to talk about all of this. So they're trying to play politics with that. Frankly, this is the same thing that's happened…I go all the way back to 1990, before the fish were endangered. This is the way that these politics work in the region. But I've also seen them all when things finally turn, and I do think this is an inflection point. This may be the point. Of course, if the election goes the other way, if Biden doesn't get re-elected, everything's out the window. If Trump is our president, I suspect that it would all go back to stay the status quo and it'll probably end up costing the region a lot of money and cost Idaho its salmon, and Oregon. The Grand Ronde - these fish swim all the way up the Grand Ronde as well. And we've already spent billions to try to keep them.

Miller: But just in the next couple weeks here - from what I've seen, neither the federal government nor the sovereign tribal nations or environmental groups have said too much about this leaked draft. Is it your assumption that within the next two weeks, the final draft will be similar to what was leaked?

Barker: Yes, I do. I mean, the reason that it didn't come out on the first was that the litigants - including the State of Oregon, by the way - and the federal government, did not actually reach the settlement. So there are still points everybody on the two sides are working on. If it doesn't come out on December 15, then I think that the lawsuit will continue and it's going to continue to cost people money, the whole region. We either have the settlement we dreamed of for a couple of decades or we have a train wreck. So that's where we're at.

Miller: Rocky Barker, thanks very much.

Barker: Thank you.

Miller: Rocky Barker is a retired environmental writer for the Idaho Statesman.

Sage Van Wing
Leaked Agreement Shows Federal Government Willing to Take Down Snake River Dams <-- Listen at orginal site.
Oregon Public Broadcasting, December 4, 2023

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