A temporary compromise has been reached on the operation of eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the coming year, giving more time for government officials and conservation groups to discuss the future of the dams.
As plans are made to save endangered salmon, a fresh look at the issues affecting the communities, economy and resources of the Pacific Northwest could resolve 20 years of litigation, according to the Biden administration.
While the settlement agreement is not ideal, it does remove some of the risk of blackouts and higher electricity costs for the Northwest, said Northwest RiverPartners.
It does not address longer-term concerns of those who rely on the lower Snake River dams, which could be part of ongoing discussions.
One possible solution favored by some environmental groups is to breach or tear down the four lower Snake River hydropower dams, from Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington to Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, Idaho.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said earlier this month that he and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are exploring options to replace the services of the four lower Snake River dams if they are breached.
The Biden 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,” said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality as the agreement reached with the federal government was announced Thursday.
The Biden administration said that it and the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe and a coalition of conservation and fishing groups led by the National Wildlife Federation had reached an agreement on spill over the dams, which include the four lower Snake River dams.
They have asked the U.S. District Court in Portland to pause litigation filed earlier this year over last year’s environmental study of the Columbia River System.
The federal lawsuit, filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, challenges the most recent plan for dam operations issued by the Trump administration in late 2020.
It followed a multi-year environmental study that did not call for breaching the lower Snake River dams.
Oregon, the Nez Perce and conservation groups had requested that a federal judge take control of the dams and allow spill over the dams to the maximum extent allowed around the clock from spring through summer.
They believe that increased water flow through the dams would help salmon migrating to the ocean.
The compromise would place some limits on spill over the dams during the summer when demand for hydropower is high and keep water levels high enough at the dams to allow barging.
Federal officials said the agreement on dam operations would allow additional fish passage past the dams at certain times of the year while still preserving reliable hydropower production, transportation and other services provided by the dams.
“What the plaintiffs were originally asking for would be really devastating to Northwest communities,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a nonprofit representing utilities and transportation and agriculture interests that rely on the dams.
“It would have decreased our clean energy production and dramatically increased costs for vulnerable communities,” he said. “It would have threatened the region with blackouts one out of every three years.”
It is understandable that federal agencies would have wanted to take some of that extreme risk off the table with a settlement, he said.
“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,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “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.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm pointed out that hydroelectric power is used to integrate renewable resources and provide clean energy.
“By joining forces with our interagency partners and key stakeholders in the Northwest, DOE will ensure that the reduction of carbon emissions remains a priority, alongside supporting a strong economy and affordable power for families and businesses, as we partner in the Northwest to meet the full range of the region’s goals,” she said.
U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., commended the parties on reaching an agreement that would allow exploration of solutions to save salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
“With climate change altering water cycles and ecosystems, we need regionally-driven solutions to safeguard the health and prosperity of the Columbia River Basin and the Pacific Northwest’s environment and economy,” they said in a joint statement. “We welcome this effort and its focus on the needs of Washington today and in the future.”