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Commentaries and editorials

PNW Dam Controversy
is Not Over

by Dave Murray
Waterways Journal, November 5, 2021

A Tidewater barge is loaded with grain at the Lewis Clark Terminal at the Port of Lewiston on Monday. A study funded by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association indicates breaching Snake River dams would increase regional transportation costs by $2.3 billion over the next 30 years. (Pete Caster photo) The fight over the 14 dams in the Columbia River Basin and whether to breach some of them to benefit migrating salmon and steelhead is far from over. It has continued to smolder despite a 2020 environmental impact statement by the Corps of Engineers declining to breach any of the dams. But efforts are underway that could possibly break the ongoing bitter deadlocks.

The EIS concluded that while "breaching of the [the four] Lower Snake River projects would have major long-term beneficial effects to resident fish in the Snake River," it would also threaten the state's energy grid reliability and "has the highest adverse impacts to other resources, especially social and economic effects."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both past proponents of dam breaching, released a joint statement in October in which they announced a plan to create a "new process" to determine whether there are "reasonable means" for replacing the benefits provided by the four Lower Snake River dams. The two have been working on the statement since May. "We approach this question with open minds and without a predetermined decision. Both of us believe that, for the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impacts of breach can, or cannot, be mitigated," Murray and Inslee said in a joint statement. They said after listening to all stakeholders they would finalize their recommendations by July 31, 2022.

Murray hinted that she might incorporate elements of a plan that includes steps toward actions regarding the four dams into the next Water Resources Development Act. Murray sits on the influential Energy and Water Development Subcommittee in the Senate.

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which represents commercial waterway interests and farmers who use the waterways to export their products, has argued that dam breaches are not necessary and that salmon populations are in fact rebounding in the Lower Snake. "[T]he lower Snake River dams are ‘run of river,' do not block fish and in fact have outstanding fish passage rates. Some lower Snake River salmon populations are expanding to the point where states are opening fishing seasons for the first time in 100 years, and orca populations outside of Washington's three Puget Sound resident pods are thriving," the PNWA said in a recent statement.

Agreement Announced

On October 21, the administration of President Joe Biden announced an agreement among contesting parties that will temporarily pause a longstanding suit over the dams. "In an effort to take a fresh look at the important issues affecting the communities, economy and resources of the Pacific Northwest, the United States, the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe and a coalition of plaintiffs led by the National Wildlife Federation have reached a compromise on key disputed elements of 2022 Columbia River system operations," the administration said.

The agreement asks the court to stay the litigation until the end of July 2022, to afford affected states, tribes and stakeholders the opportunity to identify and review alternative and durable solutions to longstanding challenges in the Columbia River System.

The agreement, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, outlines how eight dams in the Columbia River Basin will be operated over the coming year. This will include additional fish passage spills of water past the dams at certain times of year while preserving reliable hydropower production, transportation and other services provided by the dams. Federal dam operators have already agreed to change the way they release warmed water from reservoirs beginning next spring. Warm water has been blamed for sickness among migrating salmon.

"Today's filing represents an important opportunity to prioritize the resolution of more than 20 years of litigation and identify creative solutions that improve conditions for salmon for years to come," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said. "While it is important to balance the region's economy and power generation, it is also time to improve conditions for tribes that have relied on these important species since time immemorial."

"We remain committed to pursuing collaborative approaches to river management, public safety and salmon restoration," said Vance Stewart, acting principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army-civil works. "A healthy and vibrant Columbia River Basin is good for the economy, and it's good for the people of the Pacific Northwest," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said. "The Columbia River Basin is essential to salmon and steelhead production on the West Coast, providing a key refuge for salmon and steelhead from the effects of climate change. Finding effective solutions to conserve and rebuild these species and their habitat is of critical importance to our work."

"For the sake of everyone who lives in the Northwest, it is time to chart a more sustainable path in the Columbia River Basin," White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said. "This agreement opens an opportunity for states, tribes, federal agencies, Congress and all stakeholders to work together to forge enduring solutions that are so badly needed. The administration is committed to reaching a long-term solution in the region to restore salmon, honoring our commitments to Tribal Nations, ensuring reliable clean energy and addressing the needs of stakeholders."

Dave Murray
PNW Dam Controversy is Not Over
Waterways Journal, November 5, 2021

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