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News / Northwest

McMorris Rodgers brings Snake River dam debate to the Capitol, while Yakama Nation warns of ‘misinformation’

By Orion Donovan Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: January 31, 2024, 8:14am

WASHINGTON — The long-running debate over the future of the Lower Snake River dams came to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, as House Republicans railed against an agreement the Biden administration reached in December with the states of Washington and Oregon and four Northwest tribes aimed at restoring salmon runs.

Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, emphasized that the agreement did not authorize breaching the four dams — something only Congress could do — but critics say the administration is inching toward the possibility of dam breaching without fully considering its consequences.

The settlement, which includes funds for other fish restoration efforts in exchange for pausing litigation over the dams’ operation for 10 years, emerged from a confidential mediation process that included only the parties involved in the lawsuits, not other stakeholders in the region. While the agreement doesn’t directly address the fate of the dams, advocates of dam breaching hailed it as a step toward eventually removing the structures and replacing the power, transportation and irrigation they provide.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused the council of cutting “a secret back-room deal to please radical environmentalists” and warned that removing the dams would “destroy the lives of the people I represent.”

“To put it simply, the Columbia River System is critical to our entire way of life,” McMorris Rodgers said, before enumerating the other factors that contribute to declining salmon runs, including pollution, loss of spawning habitat and a booming population of sea lions and other predators.

“The Lower Snake River dams are not the problem, and breaching them is not the solution,” she said, pointing to declining salmon runs across the Northwest, including in rivers with few or no dams.

Democrats on the subcommittee that held the hearing accused Republicans of misrepresenting the agreement to score political points, while they underscored the challenge the Biden administration faces in balancing its desire to promote low-carbon electricity with its obligations to tribes.

Under treaties they signed with the federal government before Washington and Oregon became states, Northwest tribes ceded vast swaths of their land in exchange for fishing rights. Those rights are violated, tribes argue, when there are too few fish to catch.

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Jeremy Takala, a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, objected to the idea that the four tribes involved in the agreement don’t represent the people who rely on the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake. He cautioned the lawmakers against believing a “one-sided story fueled by fear and misinformation.”

The Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes were also part of the agreement.

“The Yakama Nation is not a radical environmental special-interest group,” Takala said. “Our inherent, sovereign rights and privileges are recognized and guaranteed by the treaty we signed with the U.S. in 1855.”

The four tribes support dam breaching as part of a broader effort to restore the salmon and steelhead populations that have fallen far below historic levels. Mallory and the other representatives of federal agencies involved in the agreement — the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — stressed that they don’t advocate dam breaching and maintained that it couldn’t happen without approval and funding from Congress.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers from outside the Northwest showed varying degrees of familiarity with the regional issue, sometimes asking unrelated questions or repeating questions that had just been answered.

Rep. Kim Schrier, whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs, is the sole Northwest Democrat on the subcommittee. While McMorris Rodgers was visibly angry when questioning the witnesses, Schrier took a more cautious approach.

“I’ve long said that the issue of the Lower Snake River dams is incredibly complex,” she said. “And because of that, all constituents who have a stake need to have a seat at the table.”

Schrier cited a letter she sent to Mallory in December along with McMorris Rodgers, central Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse and southwest Washington Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez. In it, the four lawmakers raised concerns about unanswered questions about the agreement, including its funding sources, its impact on Bonneville Power Administration customers and the government’s ability to fulfill its commitments.

Later in the hearing, Takala said the agreement would have nearly no impact on current energy rates — and none at all for residents of Spokane and Yakima. Citing a Bonneville Power Administration analysis, he said it would cause a maximum cost increase of 24 cents per month for customers who buy all their power from BPA, which is not typical.

The government witnesses agreed that dismantling the dams would have a bigger impact on electricity costs, but they repeatedly said that dam breaching remains a distant hypothetical. Later in the hearing, witnesses from groups representing rural power cooperatives, barge operators and grain farmers said breaching the dams would have far-reaching impacts on everyone who relies on the benefits they provide.

In addition to producing an average of about 1,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 800,000 homes, according to BPA — the dams effectively turn the Lower Snake River into a series of navigable pools, letting barges move between Lewiston and the Pacific Ocean.

While the Biden administration has acknowledged those benefits and repeatedly said only Congress could authorize dam breaching, Rep. Russ Fulcher accused the Council on Environmental Quality — which was established by President Richard Nixon in 1969 — of going beyond its intended role.

“In 1969, global warming hadn’t even been invented yet, much less climate change and environmental justice,” said Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho and areas west of Boise.

Newhouse, Fulcher, McMorris Rodgers and other Northwest Republicans introduced legislation on Thursday that would prohibit the use of federal funds for dam breaching. The DAMN Act — short for “Defending Against Manipulative Negotiators” — would also block the implementation of the agreement between the administration, Washington, Oregon and the four tribes.

That bill has little chance of becoming law, and Tuesday’s hearing did little to resolve Republicans’ distrust of the Biden administration’s goals. It likely won’t be the last time White House officials face scrutiny as they work to implement the agreement over the coming decade.

“We are not removing dams,” Mallory said with a weary laugh halfway through the hearing. “I don’t know how many times I’m going to say that.”