The long-running court battle over federal management of the Columbia River hydrosystem, launched more than 25 years ago, would remain on hold under an agreement announced Thursday by the federal Interior Department.
The agreement, if approved by the U.S. District Court in Portland, would extend by up to one year a stay put in place last October.
In a Thursday statement, the Interior Department called the stay “an important step” to charting a path forward for the operation of the Columbia River Basin dams.
The agreement comes amid escalating regional tensions over the direction of salmon restoration, which over decades has involved billions of dollars in federal spending and changes in dam management, in a so-far-unsuccessful effort to restore salmon runs protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Biden administration is considering a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report released last month that cited removal of one to four dams along the Lower Snake River as among possible actions needed to recover threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River Basin.
Breaching those dams has long been championed by plaintiffs in a lawsuit that include environmental groups, sport-fishing representatives and the Nez Perce Tribe.
The plaintiffs in recent months have been in consultation with the federal government. In a Tuesday statement, they said the joint request to extend the litigation stay is based on the White House’s “unequivocal commitment to urgent and bold action and a new direction for salmon restoration in the Columbia and Snake River Basin.”
“Tribes, more than anyone, understand the moment we face: a Columbia Basin salmon crisis, a climate crisis and a crisis of 90 years of tribal injustice imposed by the Columbia power system on Indian people and their homelands, waters and fisheries,” Nez Perce Chair Samuel Penney said in a separate statement.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee are expected to decide this summer whether to support removing the four Lower Snake dams. The prospect of legislation has rallied dam-removal opponents, including Northwest public power and cooperative utilities that have poured more than $2 million into a public relations opposition campaign.
Utilities are concerned that dam removal would result in more costly alternative sources of power and an increasingly unreliable grid. Their representatives find fault with the new stay agreement.
“We are encouraged by the move away from the courtroom, but the agreement completely excluded hydropower supporters and allows the plaintiffs to walk away from negotiations if their demands for dam removal are not met,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which represents public utility districts and electric cooperatives.
The Biden administration’s review of the dam-breaching option also has come under criticism from eight Republican congressional members, including Reps. Dan Newhouse, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, all from Washington.
In a Thursday letter to Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, they declared the “invaluable benefits” of the Columbia River hydropower system to the Pacific Northwest, and accused the Biden administration of “political maneuvering” to prevent release of information on the costs of replacing power generated from the dams before the July 11 release of the draft NOAA report.
The letter asked if the Council on Environmental Quality members were involved in delaying the release of another report by E3 — contracted by the Bonneville Power Administration — detailing costs of replacing power from the Lower Snake River dams. That report forecasts that replacing dams could cost from $42 billion to $77 billion, if emerging technologies such as next-generation nuclear fail to develop and fossil-fuel plants are not deployed.
The eight Republicans also sent letters requesting additional information to NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad, Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Bonneville Power Administration CEO John Hairston.