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Northwest Republicans Object to Leaked Draft
of Snake River Dams Agreement

by Orion Donovan-Smith
Spokesman-Review, December 3, 2023

A report in 2022 that concluded dam breaching would not be viable
before the services they provide are replaced.

The Lower Granite Dam being constructed on the Snake River in 1973. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) WASHINGTON -- In a letter to the Biden administration Wednesday, four Inland Northwest Republicans released a leaked draft of an agreement they fear could pave the way to the eventual removal of the Lower Snake River dams.

The confidential document, part of an ongoing mediation process between federal agencies and a coalition of tribes and conservation groups that blames the dams in part for declining salmon runs, says the government is willing to spend billions on infrastructure that could replace the electricity and other benefits the four dams provide. But it stops short of endorsing dam breaching, a proposal that has long divided the region and would require Congress to act.

In their letter, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Eastern Washington, Dan Newhouse of Central Washington, Russ Fulcher of North Idaho and Cliff Bentz of Eastern Oregon expressed concern that, "Due to the document's use of vague and imprecise language, it appears susceptible to misinterpretation."

"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 lawmakers wrote.

The draft agreement, dated Nov. 2 and labeled "Confidential mediation document -- not for distribution," lays out the Biden administration's offer to settle litigation brought by plaintiffs who contend the federal government has not met its obligations to restore salmon and steelhead runs. The latest chapter in the long legal saga began when the Nez Perce Tribe, the state of Oregon and a coalition of environmental groups sued the Trump administration over a 2020 plan for managing dams and protecting salmon.

In addition to helping to plan and pay for the development of new energy sources, the draft includes funding to assess the region's energy needs and replace the other services the dams provide, including irrigation and transportation. The four dams essentially turn the Lower Snake River into a series of pools, and together with dams on the Lower Columbia River they allow barges to move goods between Lewiston, Idaho and the Pacific Ocean.

Advocates of dam breaching say removing the earthen portion of the four Lower Snake River dams would restore the river's flow and increase survival rates for the salmon and steelhead that travel to the ocean as juveniles and return to where they were born to spawn at the end of their lives. Opponents of dam breaching argue that other factors -- including changing ocean conditions, pollution and predators -- play a bigger role in dwindling fish populations.

"The Biden Administration recognizes the indisputable value and importance of salmon -- and other native fish -- to Columbia River Basin Tribes, as well as to the economy and overall ecological health of the region, throughout the Basin and from the Oregon coast to the Gulf of Alaska," the document states. "In the face of climate change, urgent action is needed to restore their populations to healthy and abundant levels."

The document says that "business as usual" is unacceptable and "there is no time to waste" to save salmon and steelhead. While the government is "committed to exploring restoration of the Lower Snake River, including dam breach," it emphasizes that the document does not constitute support for legislation to authorize dam breaching.

In their letter, the GOP lawmakers pose a series of questions to the Biden administration about the details of the draft agreement. They question why the "Pacific Northwest Tribal Energy Program" proposed in the document would include only the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes, and none of the other tribes in the region.

The four Republicans also challenge the administration's claim that "the science is clear" -- on which the document does not elaborate -- and ask for the definition of "healthy and abundant" fish populations. They also remind the administration that only Congress has the authority to authorize and appropriate the money that the proposed plan would require.

The parties agreed at the end of August to extend a pause in litigation to continue negotiating a deal. When that extension expired at the end of October, they jointly asked the court for another 45 days to share a "package of actions and commitments" with other parties to the lawsuit and "regional sovereigns," including tribes and the states of Washington and Oregon.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, three groups that oppose dam breaching decried what they called a "secret agreement" that ignores the concerns of the farmers, barge operators, electrical ratepayers and others who benefit from the dams.

"Instead of working with all interests, the US Government chose for months to hold secret negotiations and refused to share any details with us, let alone allow our participation," Northwest RiverPartners, the Public Power Council and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association said in the statement.

"It is not surprising, then, that this proposal turns its back on over three million electricity customers as well as the farming, transportation, navigation, and economic needs of the region. By purposely excluding our respective organizations from the negotiations, literally millions of Northwest residents were deprived of fair representation in this process."

The current stay of litigation expires Dec. 15, and the parties involved are barred by a court order from commenting on the agreement. Amanda Goodin, the lead attorney on the case at the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, declined to comment on the substance of the deal but said it is "absolutely standard for mediation related to litigation to be confidential."

Like the Biden administration, congressional Democrats have so far declined to take a position on breaching the dams, pulled in opposite directions by their support for the low-carbon electricity and other benefits the dams provide on one hand, and the demands of tribes and environmentalists on the other.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both Washington Democrats, released a report in 2022 that concluded dam breaching would not be viable before the services they provide are replaced.

Meanwhile, the proposal has caused a bitter dispute between Northwest Republicans after Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents the eastern half of Idaho, released a plan in February 2021 to breach the dams after investing $33 billion in new infrastructure to replace their benefits. McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has joined with Newhouse to spearhead an effort to prevent that from happening.

The stay of litigation ends Dec. 15. At that time, according to court filings, the plaintiffs and the government will either return to court or request a multiyear stay to implement their plan.

Orion Donovan-Smith work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.
Northwest Republicans Object to Leaked Draft of Snake River Dams Agreement
Spokesman-Review, December 3, 2023

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