Irrigation association is hoping new Trump administration will take another look at plans to breach four Snake River dams to protect salmon

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A Kennewick-based irrigation association has asked the incoming Donald Trump administration to convene a “God Squad” committee to end escalating requirements to protect Columbia and Snake river fish runs.

The request comes as discussions start again on tearing down four lower Snake River dams.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in Portland has ordered a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), after the federal government’s latest plan for protecting threatened and endangered salmon did not consider whether breaching Snake River dams would save wild salmon.

Among alternatives likely to be considered in the study are breaching the Snake River dams, changes to dam operations on the Snake and Columbia rivers, securing more water under the Columbia River Treaty with Canada and changes to flood control.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association believes there should not even be a discussion.

“We are not going to go along gracefully. We should not be in an EIS process,” Darryll Olsen, board representative for the irrigators association, told the Tri-City Herald editorial board last week.

The Endangered Species Act allows the Trump administration’s new secretary of Interior, who is yet to be named, to convene an Endangered Species Act Committee, or “God Squad,” to set boundaries for hydro-system operations.

“Those boundaries should actually reflect competent resources management, not empty gesture environmentalism,” the irrigation association said in a memo to the Trump transition team.

The association is hoping for a ruling that would end a cycle of repeated litigation and increasingly complex and expensive plans for what it says is already the most extensive fish protection and enhancement program in the world.

“It is driven by a biased court decision in what has become a salmon recovery industry over the last 20 years,” Olsen said.

The Bonneville Power Administration has spent $15 billion to mitigate the dams’ effect on fish and wildlife.

The expense shows up on utility bills, costing the ratepayer an extra 15 percent, said Chad Bartram, general manager of the Benton Public Utility District.

The current investment in fish and wildlife appears to be working, Olsen said.

From Lewiston to below the Bonneville Dam, nearly 50 percent of fish survive the entire stretch of the Snake and Columbia rivers, with the survival rate at each project on the river about 92 percent to 95 percent, according to data provided by the irrigation association.

“When you look at raw numbers, something must be working,” Olsen said.

However, environmental groups and the Nez Perce tribe say salmon-recovery efforts have not produced adequate results.

“The fish aren’t coming back in numbers that would allow us to have salmon as part of our daily meals if we wanted to,” Elliott Moffett, president of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, said in a statement.

Survival rates drop in low-water years like 2015, with about 40 percent of fish surviving from Lewiston to below Bonneville Dam, he said.

The Tri-City Development Council is calling for the new environmental study to look at the economics of the whole river system and the impacts to the upper Northwest of breaching dams.

The four Snake River dams produce enough electricity for about 800,000 homes.

The cost of breaching the dams has been estimated at $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion, to be paid by taxpayers.