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March 3, 2024

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Worries grow for ‘secret plan’ on Snake River dams negotiated by Biden administration

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KENNEWICK — Four Northwest Republican lawmakers are asking the federal government to share what they call “a secret plan” the government has negotiated with groups that have called for removing the lower Snake River dams.

A long-running federal court lawsuit is paused until Dec. 15 to allow plaintiffs in the lawsuit to discuss a proposed agreement and path forward on the dams with select other tribes and litigation parties and to approve proposed actions and commitments.

No one involved in the litigation is permitted to otherwise discuss the proposed actions and commitments, according to Earthjustice, which is representing a coalition of fishing, conservation and renewable energy groups in the lawsuit.

That has left out Northwest residents who are directly affected by the proposal, say groups, including the Tri-City Development Council, which represent the economic interests of many Northwest residents.

The Public Power Council, made up of nonprofit, community-owned utilities, has just recently learned that some parties in the litigation were working secretly with the federal government for more than six months on the proposal that could be adopted soon, said council’s executive director, Scott Sims.

“We can’t wait for the day when the current confidentiality gag order is lifted on those proposed actions and commitments and everyone gets to see for themselves the level of uncertainty and prospective new costs that are being proposed for Northwest citizens as a result of these secret dealings,” Sims said.

The lawsuit challenges the most recent federal plan for hydropower operations on the Snake River in Eastern Washington for not doing enough to save threatened salmon as pressure has mounted to tear down the dams. The case has been on hold for the past two years.

On Dec. 15 the plaintiffs and federal defendants will either request a multi-year stay of the lawsuit to implement the proposal or they will return to court, according to Earthjustice.

Authority to breach Snake dams

But Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and other lawmakers are reminding the Biden administration that Congress has the exclusive authority not only to breach the four Snake River dams in Eastern Washington, but also the exclusive authority to direct the study of breaching or to authorize replacement resources.

“This is a statutory fact, and we warn the administration not to attempt to circumvent that fact through clever wordsmithing,” they said in a letter sent Monday to the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, a division of the executive office of the president.

Newhouse was the lead signatory on the letter that was also signed by Republican representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Russ Fulcher of Idaho and Cliff Bentz of Oregon.

The letter asked the Council on Environmental Quality to immediately give the proposal to members of Congress.

Since a court report was filed about three weeks ago that said a package of actions and commitments had been developed through negotiations, the four Northwest representatives “have heard a plethora of different complaints from those who will be directly impacted by the court’s decision,” the letter said.

“These parties have raised complaints about both the exclusionary process that has surrounded development of the ‘package of actions and commitments’ as well as the significant costs and risks that would be unilaterally imposed on these stakeholders,” the letter said.

Stakeholders are concerned that the proposal may not reflect the needs of people across the Pacific Northwest, it said.

The four representatives said they also were concerned that the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the power generated by the four dams, could lose its historic independence to set rates.

They said they strongly object to any effort to saddle BPA’s electricity ratepayers with costs that should be borne by taxpayers.

Snake River negotiations ‘flawed’

The congressional letter was supported by groups that rely on the dams and the Snake River for public power, for shipping wheat and for other economic development, including in the Tri-Cities.

“The many stakeholders who stand to be impacted by the outcome of this mediation deserve a seat at the table and to have their voices heard,” said Karl Dye, TRIDEC president. “This is a basic tenet of our system of government, and it is fundamentally unfair for select groups to be left out of the decision-making process on an issue that affects them directly.”

Parties to the litigation have pushed to tear down the lower Snake River dams, from Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities upriver to Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, Idaho.

They reached an agreement in closed negotiations with the Biden administration, the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Nez Perce, Yakama, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes.

The people of the Pacific Northwest have been let down by “this so-called process” being run by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Simms said.

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association is “deeply disappointed in the flawed process” that led to the proposal, said Neil Mauno, the association’s executive director.

The association’s input was overlooked for months while plaintiffs held secret negotiations with the Council on Environmental Quality, he said.

“This failure to consider the expertise and perspective of our members who rely on the critical navigation services provided by the system has left us with grave concerns about the credibility and fairness of the resulting package of actions and commitments,” he said.

The four Northwest Congress members, while calling for the proposal to be “immediately” handed over, said that they expect to receive it by Dec. 1.

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