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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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In Our View: Secret talks on Snake River dams bad policy

The Columbian

Finding the most effective and expedient path for saving endangered salmon requires open discussion and transparency. Such desires are undermined by the Biden administration’s closed-door negotiations regarding the future of four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River.

A draft agreement between four tribal governments, the federal government and Washington and Oregon representatives would spend more than $1 billion in preparation for breaching the dams. The agreement has not been made public, but the Tri-City Herald reports that it has received a leaked copy.

The plan stops short of a decision to remove the dams, the Herald reports, but says the U.S. government continues to be “committed to exploring restoration of the lower Snake River, including dam breach.”

Proposals to breach the dams require robust planning for replacing the electricity they produce, thorough analysis of the science surrounding salmon preservation, and realistic expectations of the cost. Those issues warrant consideration, but for now they have been obscured by the administration’s subterfuge.

The proposed agreement was negotiated as part of a federal lawsuit that has been paused until Dec. 15. The lawsuit challenges federal plans for hydropower operations at the dams in Eastern Washington and Idaho, saying they are inadequate for saving salmon. The health of the species also is important to the sustainability of orca, who depend on salmon as their primary food source.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have pushed for the removal of the dams, fostering growing political debate throughout the Northwest.

The problem with the draft proposal is something that Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, has pointed out: Congress has sole authority to approve breaching the dams and sole authority to direct any study of removing them.

That, in itself, is problematic. Getting Congress to consider important issues filled with minutiae can be difficult. Getting elected officials to agree on those issues can be even more difficult.

For decades, members of Congress have inched the nation toward an imperial presidency by abdicating their duty to consider issues that do not lend themselves to pithy sound bites. As former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., once wrote: “Unless Americans accept that we have devolved into a political system where the president has become a de facto prime minister, it is difficult to understand why Congress has remained so complacent when the executive branch has made its own agreements affecting long-term security and economic issues.”

This goes beyond the issues of salmon and dams in the Northwest, but it is applicable to the current situation.

The Tri-City Herald reports that the 34-page agreement negotiated by the Biden administration’s Council on Environmental Quality says scientific studies support dam removal and “overwhelmingly support acting and acting now.”

But as Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, has noted: “We are still burning coal in this country. Now is not the time to take green energy (hydropower) off the grid.”

In other words, there are valid points to be made on both sides of the issue.

Working to settle a lawsuit that could result in a mandate for dam removal is a prudent act. But any discussion or step toward an eventual solution should be fully transparent and subject to public review. And it should be led by a Congress that will have the final say on the matter.