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News / Northwest

Northwest lawmakers grill feds over ‘secret backroom deal’ on Snake River dam breaching

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: February 1, 2024, 1:07pm

A White House official defended a deal reached in federal court on the lower Snake River dams as creating stability for those who depend on their benefits. But Republicans on a House subcommittee blasted the agreement Tuesday.

“For more than two years, the Biden administration worked behind closed doors with a select group to develop a secret package of actions and commitments that would temporarily settle litigation over the future of our river system,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security.

She and other Republicans are concerned that the deal reached in federal court advances efforts to remove the four dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington from Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco to Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, Idaho.

Clearly the goal of the Biden administration’s environmental advisory council is to breach the Snake River Dams, which would decimate the economy of the Pacific Northwest, said said Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho.

“And I for one, in terms of Congress, am not going to stand for it,” he said. The dams provide hydropower, barging, irrigation and flood control, he said.

The agreement announced in December puts a hold for up to 10 years on a decades-old federal court case on the future of the four Eastern Washington dams.

It will provide stability for dam operations during that time, containing costs for electric ratepayers and allowing continued barging on the river, said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, which advises the president on environmental and natural resources policies.

It also will provide time for complex issues to be worked out, Mallory said.

The agreement calls for about $1 billion in federal spending to help restore declining fish salmon populations, to help four Northwest tribes develop clean energy projects and to study how the benefits of the dams, such as hydropower production, could be replaced.

The information would be used to inform Congress should it decide to consider breaching the dams, said federal officials.

Snake River salmon

Tribes and many environmental groups want the dams torn down or breached after 13 species of salmon and steelhead have been listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia River Basin, which includes the Snake River.

McMorris Rodgers, questioned the agreement’s focus on the dams, saying of the 13 species of concern in the Columbia River Basin, five were in crisis. But the Snake River spring and summer chinook is the only Snake River population among those five, she said.

Two others of the species in crisis are in the Puget Sound of Washington, she said.

Predation by sea lions and other animals, pollution, habitat loss and ocean conditions all are harming salmon populations, she said asking panelists to explain the focus on the dams.

“CEQ cut a secret backroom deal to please radical environmentalists who are profiting from a campaign to tear out our dams,” McMorris Rodgers said. “You ignored the science and the law and there are consequences for that.”

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report concluded that for the best possible outcome to achieve healthy and harvestable salmon populations, the lower Snake River dams need to be breached, said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

“If we don’t do things differently, we will see the extinction of salmon species,” said Jeremy Takala, chairman of the Yakima Tribal Council Fish and Wildlife Committee. Dams turn the Snake River into a series of warm pools, he said.

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‘Secret’ dams agreement?

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., argued at the four-and-a-half-hour hearing that the agreement was not secret but reached through public input and then mediation that required confidentiality, followed by a public release of the agreement.

But panelists at the hearing who depend on the dams disagreed.

The agreement was negotiated by the federal government with the states of Washington and Oregon and four tribes, the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs.

There were listening sessions early on for those who rely on the dams to allow them to provide information and opinions, but they were excluded from negotiations.

Neither the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, nor any other power agency, was included in negotiations after early listening sessions, said Jim Matheson, chief executive officer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

McMorris Rodgers pointed out that most Northwest tribes and six of the eight states that rely on Bonneville Power Administration electricity from hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin were excluded from negotiations.

At the subcommittee hearing, federal officials repeatedly pointed out that the agreement stipulates that Congress holds the authority to breach the dams.

But while the agreement does not specifically call for breaching the dams, it does mandate spill and flow agreements that chip away at the economic viability of the dams with the goal of making operating them uneconomical, Matheson said.

He also pointed out that the settlement agreement uses the word “breaching” 22 time and “replacement power” 25 times.

“Why are we talking about replacement power unless it assumes the dams are going to be breached?” he said. “This settlement effort is a way to force Congress’ hand, to put Congress in a position where breaching is more likely.”

Dams needed in cold snap

The dams proved their value as a flexible, controllable and carbon-free resource during the January cold snap, when demand for electricity in the Northwest broke records, he said.

From Jan. 11-13 wind production of electricity dropped 94%, but hydropower output increased 50%, he said.

“Renewables can be part of a portfolio, but they do not have the capacity of these lower Snake River dams in terms of always being available, being able to ramp up and down 24/7,” he said.

Demand for electricity is expected to grow, with more electric vehicles, heat pumps and data centers, he said.

If the four dams are breached electric rates most likely will increase, and taking out generation that can reliably operate around the clock could reduce grid reliability, said John Hairston, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, under questioning by McMorris Rodgers.

Snake River barging

Now the dams allow 10% of the nation’s wheat to be exported using barge transportation on the lower Snake River, and farmers of soybeans and corn as far away as the Midwest rely on barging on the river, said Casey Chumrau, chief executive officer of the Washington Grain Commission.

It is not physically possible to replace all barging of cargo on the Snake River with trucks and trains, said Neil Maunu, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. Even if it was, increased costs of shipping would put family farmers out of business, he said.

One tug and four barges on the Columbia River replace 538 truckloads of cargo traveling through the Columbia River Gorge scenic area, he said.

During the recent cold snap, shipping by truck and travel was largely halted, but freight continued to move on the river, Maunu said.

“It is clear the Biden administration is prioritizing their wishes over those of the people of the Pacific Northwest,” said McMorris Rodgers near the end of the hearing. “That is not how government was designed to work — setting policy through a secret negotiated agreement rather than through the people and the people’s representatives.”