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'Insane,' 'Reckless': Stakeholders Respond to
Snake River Dam Plan

by Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, December 15, 2023

The decline in salmon populations began in
1915 to 1922 -- before any dams were built.

Graphic: Shipping wheat on the federally-subsidized Lower Snake River has declined over recent years.  More of this grain is being shipped by rail, a mode of transportation that has been more effecient than by barge for over a quarter century (see 29th ed. Transportation Energy Data) Stakeholders say the risk of eventual breaching of the four lower Snake River dams is low, but couldn't find much else positive to say about the agreement forged between the federal government and plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the dams' operation.

"It still stands that this is an agreement that happened behind closed doors," said Leslie Druffel, co-chair of the Inland Ports and Navigation Group, an intervenor defendant in the lawsuit. "We were able to provide input, but never really engaged with how that input may have decided the content of the agreement."

The navigation group is part of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Druffel and association government relations manager Anthony Pena view federal government and White House recognition that only Congress can authorize breaching as a win.

"A lot of these plaintiffs have been fighting that very fact for a long time," Pena said.

The agreement, however, is a "step in the direction of dam breaching," he said.

"It's almost like it's treated like it's this inevitability, and it's not, to us at least," he said. "We don't understand the full impacts of dam breaching -- we know some of the impacts, we ourselves have looked into those."

District Court Judge Michael Simon gave all parties until Dec. 29 to enter a response to the government's motion to stay. Simon gave the government and plaintiffs until Jan. 12 to respond to those filings.

'Insane' timeline

The Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative includes "an expedited effort to make the investments necessary to enable breach to move forward with urgency (for example, two fish generations)," which the law firm Earthjustice has equated to about eight years, or four years per chinook salmon generation.

"That's just insane to me," Pena said. "Given the current timeline of current permitting on basic projects, you're telling me you're going to build out not just the energy capabilities of production, but the transmission that has to go with that?

"Including readdressing the whole transportation network," he continued. "Building out entire new rail facilities and rail lines -- in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, mind you. Um, good luck."

That doesn't include the time it would take for a river to settle, he said.

"Say they were to dam breach," he said. "We don't know what the water level's going to be for another 10 years, so we can't build irrigation capabilities for at least a decade."

He calls the commitments "silver bullet solutions" to salmon recovery.

"They're not grounded in reality," Pena said. "Ultimately, I think it's just a reflection of the bad part of politics at its finest: 'We're just going to do XYZ, we'll get this easily.' Rarely is any one thing the answer to something."

Pena called the agreement's call for a $750,000 transportation impact study "laughable."

He noted that the report released in 2022 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray recommended a $10 million study.

"I don't know how they're expecting this to be comprehensive and far-reaching," he said. "There's nationwide implications here, too. This is not just a Pacific Northwest issue."

Potential safety hazardsDruffel and Pena are concerned about "potential safety hazards" due to proposed operational changes in the agreement. Pena said the proposal is vague.

"We are already operating at margins in this system because of previous court-ordered spill patterns," he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and navigators will need to conduct modeling to ensure it's still safe for barges, tugboats, cruise ships and other large vessels to move through the system, Druffel said.

Compounding factors

"At this point, it's a very reckless report," said Matt Harris, director of government affairs for the Washington Potato Commission.

Harris points to still-unanswered questions, including potential impacts to irrigation if electricity costs increase by 60% if the dams are removed, or the need for electricity generated by the dams while developing new modes of transportation that are renewable.

"There's a lot of compounding factors that we're trying to investigate, that it seems as if no one really cares about -- that's troubling," he said. "There's so much wrong with just the blanket decision of 'We're just going to do this,' without actually having an honest conversation."

Wheat farmers

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, called the announcement "extremely concerning."

"Over 60% of Washington wheat exports utilize the Columbia-Snake River System, which is essential for supporting a thriving overseas export market along with providing nearly 4,000 jobs," she said. "As a result, the breaching of critical dam infrastructure would threaten the viability of the Washington wheat industry and would cause adverse impacts on the economy and the food supply chain as a whole."

WAWG will continue to work with allies in Congress "to ensure that the dams remain intact while protecting the integrity of the river system and the salmon population," Hennings said.

Electric utilities

The final agreement includes cost limitations for the Bonneville Power Administration that at least partially contain its fish and wildlife program spending obligations, the Public Power Council said in a press release.

If successfully implemented, the limitations result in cost exposure of approximately a 3% rate increase.

"While this is an important development, the potential exposure for BPA replacement resources from Lower Snake River Dam breaching still remain in the final agreement," the council said.

BPA analysis puts costs at $415 million to $860 million annually, equivalent to a 21% to 43% rate increase, the council stated.

"Over all, the uncertainty and potential long-term power cost impacts of over 40% under the intent of the agreement remain unacceptable for nonprofit public power utilities in the Northwest," the council said.

"The settlement takes a challenging situation and makes it worse," Northwest RiverPartners said in a statement. "Reintroduction of salmon in the Upper Columbia River, predator management, and eliminating Washington state's nearly $8 billion backlog of blocked fish passage are where the region and the nation should be focusing their energy to truly make a difference for fish while retaining our ability to provide clean and affordable power to communities in the Northwest."

Supporting the deal

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association supports the agreement because dam breaching is effectively "off the table for any conceivable future."

"The centerpiece for the agreement is that the Tribes are trading dam breaching for new power resources dollars," the association said in a press release.

The association was an intervenor-defendant in the mediation. Its members irrigate about 250,000 acres in Eastern Washington.

"Much of the regional industry outcry toward the Agreement is overstated," board representative Darryll Olsen stated.

Olsen argued that there was no "secret process" throughout federal mediation.

"The agreement mediation directly supported the plaintiffs and defendants review, and defendant-interveners were allowed clear access to convey their positions in multiple meetings," the association said. "The mediators facilitated independent discussions between CSRIA and the plaintiffs, allowing for an understanding of what would be acceptable to reach some kind of (lower Snake River) agreement. Other parties could have had similar in-person consultations with the plaintiffs as well."

BPA power system costs are "likely marginal," and total economic sector impact costs are "well below" any previous cost estimates for dam breaching, the association said.

"The regional industries should be praising this agreement given the alternatives," the association states.

Further studiesThe Biden administration's commitments include further studies of how transportation, irrigation and recreation services provided by the four Lower Snake River dams could be replaced, should Congress consider authorizing dam breach in the future.

Some ag stakeholders aren't giving that much weight.

"The studies that are in there, there is very little language that involves our expertise or our stakeholdership," Pena said. "Whatever studies they do intend on doing, one, I don't think they're being adequately funded enough. Two, how are those studies being conducted and who's driving those, ultimately? (It) gives us a lot of pause and concern."

"If we were not part of the initial conversation, I can't say we'll be part of any conversation moving forward," said Harris, with the potato commission. 'The administration is saying a lot, but they're not engaging."

"If it's a comprehensive study, I'm all for it," said Druffel, the navigation group co-chair. "What has been frustrating is that those studies that have been done to date, outside of the final environmental impact statement from 2020, have not been comprehensive. If they fund it adequately, to do a basin-wide, all-inclusive list of services, then yeah, go for it."

Related Sites:
Joint Motion to Extend Stay US District Court, 8/31/23
Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game v. NAT. MARINE FISHERIES US District Court Oregon, 3/28/94

Matthew Weaver, Field Reporter, Spokane
'Insane,' 'Reckless': Stakeholders Respond to Snake River Dam Plan
Capital Press, December 15, 2023

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