the film
Commentaries and editorials

Western Montana Co-ops Wary
of Snake River Dam Removal

by Tom Luty
Billings Gazette, November 30, 2023

Cooperatives are concerned about losing BPA as a primary provider
of electricity the cooperatives were legally entitled to.

Adult Runs to Idaho of Salmon and Steelhead (1962-2022) counted at highest dam of their migratory route. Western Montana electric cooperatives are watching nervously as the federal government brokers an agreement to breech hydroelectric dams on the Snake River to honor treaty-protected fishing rights of Pacific Northwest Indian tribes.

Co-ops stretching from Libby to West Yellowstone draw energy from the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates four dams on the Lower Snake River. More than 100,000 Montanans will be affected by whatever settlement the federal government and tribes agree on.

At issue in the settlement talks are the struggling fisheries of the Columbia River Basin, where once burgeoning populations of salmon and other species are dwindling to extinction. Dams are a contributing cause.

"Historically, sixteen different stocks of salmon and steelhead spawned above Bonneville Dam, as well as broadly distributed populations of bull trout, lamprey, sturgeon, and other aquatic species. Of the 16 historic salmon and steelhead stocks, four are now extinct, and seven are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act," according to a Biden administration document leaked Wednesday.

Four tribes have sued the federal government to remove the dams to restore the fishery. Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs are all party to the lawsuit. Each tribe has a treaty right to harvest salmon from the basin as a means of preserving their way of life. The parties have until Dec. 15 to submit an agreement to a federal judge. The Biden administration document appears to be the agreement, or at least a part of one.

The document leaked by Republican members of Congress provided a first look at how the dam removal might play out over several years with new sources of renewable energy generation built to offset the loss of BPA's four dams. The plan acknowledges a years-long staircase of the procedural steps to scale before the dams could be removed including having replacement power in place ahead of time. Congress would have to sign off.

"The dams are a baseload generation source for the cooperatives, particularly in the winter, which is important," said Mark Lambrecht, director of government relations the Montana Electric Cooperatives' Association.

The creation of the cooperatives, buying hydropower from BPA has been the norm. The leaked settlement details suggest that once the dams are gone a new power organization comprised of tribal members and other settlement participants would replace BPA as a regional power merchant.

Lambrecht said the cooperatives are concerned about losing BPA as a primary provider of electricity the cooperatives were legally entitled to.

There aren't many tribally owned power generators, but there are a few including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of northwest Montana, which does sell electricity to a Montana cooperative, namely Beartooth Electric via Energy Keepers, the CSKT company that operates Selis Ksanka Qlispe Project, a 208-megawatt dam at the below Flathead Lake.

The leaked document calls for an early assessment of the region's electricity needs, to be published in February, followed by years of planning for new generation and transmission. The process would be modeled after a 2022 collaboration between the Department of Energy and the Navajo Nation, which has identified 30 projects to transition the tribe from coal power to renewable energy production.

The members of Congress who released the documents were Reps. Cliff Bentz, of Oregon; Russ Fulcher, of Idaho; and Washington Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Dan Newhouse.

Related Pages:
Steelhead Fishing Closure Hammers Idaho Economy by Eric Barker, Billings Gazette, 10/13/19

Related Sites:
Leaked Document of 11/2/23 and letter to President by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Tom Luty
Western Montana Co-ops Wary of Snake River Dam Removal
Billings Gazette, November 30, 2023

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