dams by LowerSnakeRiverDeal between federal government and those opposed to four dams on lower Snake River will include $1 billion in federal funds and a hold on lawsuits for at least five years

By Eric Barker Of the Tribune
Dec 15, 2023

The Biden administration announced today it has reached an agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon and other plaintiffs challenging the operation of dams that harm wild salmon on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.

The deal expected to bring more than $1 billion in federal investments to help recover wild fish in the two rivers is not a settlement of the case. Rather, it puts the lawsuit on ice for five to 10 years.

“Today’s agreement was not an easy one to reach for anyone here today, but it was and is a critical and historical step towards restoring the Columbia River Basin,” said John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, during an online news conference. “One that honors our obligations to tribal nations to protect salmon of other native fish as the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest and recognizes the important benefits the Columbia River system provides to communities and businesses throughout the region.”

Snake River salmon and steelhead returns once numbered in the millions. But the runs declined dramatically following construction of eight dams between Lewiston and the Pacific Ocean. Most returning adult fish are now from hatcheries and wild spring chinook, steelhead, sockeye and fall chinook are all protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Scientists have long identified the dams, which have fish ladders and sophisticated fish bypass systems, as a significant source of mortality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went on record last year saying dam breaching is required to restore the runs to abundance.

In exchange for pausing their litigation, the Nez Perce and other tribes that have treaty fishing rights on the two rivers will receive financial and technical assistance developing methods for producing as much as 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy sources, reforms to the way the river and fish and wildlife programs are operated, and continuing financial support for fish restoration projects in the Columbia River Basin. The Biden administration has also pledged to fund dam removal studies.

Shannon Wheeler, chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, called the agreement a pathway to future dam removal.

“We know that salmon, steelhead, lamprey, orca, all of those species will be in a better place when this is completed,” he said.

The tribe has supported dam breaching since 1996 and believes it is necessary to recover Snake River salmon and for the federal government to live up to promises it made in its Treaty of 1855 with the Nez Perce.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who participated in the news conference, didn’t commit his support for dam breaching but said this agreement will help answer important questions while advancing the development of clean energy.

“I don’t think this agreement makes anything inevitable but it does make it much more likely we will have the information we need to make a good decision, and I don’t know who would be against that,” he said.

Brenda Mallory, chairperson of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said dam operation changes in the agreement will deliver a net benefit for some fish while also benefiting power production.

Under the agreement, the tribes will be able to count the new energy development as replacement for hydroelectric power generated at the dams if a future Congress authorizes breaching. That would neutralize one powerful argument against dam breaching. The handful of Northwest politicians who have signaled some level of support for dam removal have insisted the power generation, irrigation and navigation services provided by the dams be replaced or mitigated prior to breaching.

In 2021, Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, proposed a $33 billion plan that would breach the dams and mitigate affected communities and industries. Last year, Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both Washington Democrats, said Snake River salmon must be saved but the services provided by the dams have to be replaced before breaching.

Wheeler said the tribes are betting the energy development and dam removal studies will pay future dividends.

“I think we as tribes are rolling the dice here, that all of these services are able to advance to a point to where congressional leaders can consider that and the administration can consider that and take the necessary actions to get to breach,” he said.

Some Republicans in Congress opposed the measures. On Tuesday, a House subcommittee headed by Cliff Bentz of Oregon held a hearing focusing on a leaked draft of the agreement.

“This is in my view another attempt by the current administration to promote an unreasonable and irrational agenda for their energy policy,” said Russ Fulcher of Idaho. “The problem with this one is it would gut the Pacific Northwestern economy as we know it.”

Along with conservation groups and Oregon, the tribes sued the federal government, claiming its 2020 plan to operate the dams in a way that doesn’t further harm wild salmon and steelhead violates the Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs have challenged successive dam operation plans over the past 25 years. In October 2021, the two sides agreed to pause the case and discuss a potential settlement. Today’s agreement is a product of those talks.

Under its terms, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) will spend $300 million over the next decade to help restore imperiled salmon and steelhead runs. Of that, the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes, along with Oregon and Washington, will get $100 million. The remaining $200 million will be devoted to updating salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin.

Groups that represent public utilities that purchase power from the BPA and those representing farmers who use the river to get their crops to downriver ports bitterly opposed the agreement. They contend it threatens agriculture in the region and will lead to substantially higher electricity costs. Kurt Miller, executive director of the Northwest Public Power Association, said the Biden administration did not appear to listen to any of the concerns voiced by opponents and said the suggestion that the agreement enjoys broad support among parties to the lawsuit is not accurate.

“The entire public power community is united in thinking this is a bad settlement for the public power customers they serve,” he said.

Conservation groups largely praised the deal. Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood called it another brick in the road to salmon recovery.

“It all leads to a place where the region decides if they want wild salmon in the Snake River or not, I don’t doing think it’s any more complicated than that,” he said.

Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said salmon recovery efforts over the past three decades have failed and dealing with the dams is the key to saving Idaho’s fish.

“The dams are the largest human-caused contribution to fish mortality and it has been the most expensive species recovery effort in history — $26 billion to no avail,” he said. “We can’t keep doing this. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for no improvement. The bottom line is if we want fish and we want to stop bleeding money, we need to address the dam problem.”

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