As The Columbian wrote editorially in December, secret negotiations will not solve the contentious issues surrounding four dams on the Lower Snake River. But neither will overwrought hyperbole.
No, the decision about whether or not to breach the dams lies solely with Congress. Actions that would alter the future of salmon, electricity production and irrigation in our region are the purview of the legislative branch.
Congress, however, frequently mistakes bombastic acronyms for thoughtful lawmaking. Such is the case with legislation introduced by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, called the Defending Against Manipulative Negotiators Act.
According to the bill’s summary, the DAMN Act (H.R. 7066) would “prohibit the use of federal funds to allow or study the breach or alteration of the Lower Snake River dams or implement the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, and for other purposes.”
The legislation was in response to negotiations between the Biden administration, Northwest tribes and the states of Washington and Oregon. Those negotiations resulted in an agreement to move the process forward rather than allowing it to be tied up in the courts, perhaps for years. The pact stops short of a decision to remove the dams, but declares that the U.S. government is “committed to exploring restoration of the lower Snake River, including dam breach.”
While The Columbian criticized the secretive negotiations, we have equal enmity for the theatrical response from Republican lawmakers. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane and a co-sponsor of the DAMN Act, called the agreement “a secret back-room deal to please radical environmentalists.” She also claimed that removing the dams would “destroy the lives of the people I represent.”
The primary impetus behind efforts to remove the dams is a belief that the action would help restore dwindling salmon runs. Tribes also are rightly urging the United States to fulfill treaties that were promised to last in perpetuity. Suggesting that those desires are born out of radical beliefs is insulting. As Jeremy Takala of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council said, “Our inherent, sovereign rights and privileges are recognized and guaranteed by the treaty we signed with the U.S. in 1855.”
Furthermore, lives will be destroyed only if the dams are breached without proper examination of the issues and preparation for the results. If a conclusion is reached that the dams must be removed in order to preserve salmon runs, alternatives must be in place for electricity, irrigation, river navigation and flood control.
As chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, McMorris Rodgers is uniquely positioned to study those issues and determine whether alternatives are feasible. She should focus on that rather than pointless legislation and overstatements.
In 2021, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, suggested that mitigating the removal of the dams would require a minimum of $33.5 billion. Despite the three years of effort that went into Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative, the plan has largely been ignored by members of both parties. Instead, additional studies have been ordered, secret negotiations have taken place and embellishments have supplanted reasoned discussion.
That is unacceptable. So is the prospect that salmon runs — long a defining aspect of the Northwest’s culture and economy — will not survive. Preventing such a calamity requires thoughtful, transparent discussions rather than politically motivated hyperbole.