Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee are setting the wheels in motion to begin a regionwide assessment of dam breaching on the Lower Snake River.
“We approach this question with open minds and without a predetermined decision,” the two said in a joint statement. “Both of us believe that for the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impacts of breach can, or cannot, be mitigated.”
Both said they recognize the urgency of the task as salmon runs continue to decline, and set a deadline for recommendations to be completed by no later than July 2022.
Murray will work to secure in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act an authorization of an analysis of the four Lower Snake River dams that will evaluate the costs and impacts of breaching them alongside other options.
Historically, work on any U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, including dams, has been preceded by a study. Such an analysis is necessary to pursue an authorization for further action with the dams, potentially including breaching, to be included in a future Water Resources Development Act.
The initiative was slammed by GOP House members representing Washington state.
“This appears to be nothing more than a predetermined backdoor deal in the making, and it should sound the alarm for anyone interested in transparency and a balanced public dialogue over the vital role the dams play in the Pacific Northwest,” Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jamie Herrera Beutler said in a joint statement Friday. “There is something fishy going on, and it’s not just the promising salmon returns we are seeing on the Lower Snake River.”
Meanwhile, under a filing in federal court Oct. 21, dam operations to benefit salmon, including spill of water over the dams, would be in place during the 2022 salmon migration season. The operations are intended to help salmon past the dams by routing water over the spillways rather than through turbines, increasing river flow.
“Today’s filing represents an important opportunity to prioritize the resolution of more than 20 years of litigation and identify creative solutions that improve conditions for salmon for years to come,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. “While it is important to balance the region’s economy and power generation, it is also time to improve conditions for Tribes that have relied on these important species since time immemorial.”
All parties to a federal lawsuit on dam operations also agreed to pause their litigation while the talks are underway. The stay was granted by US District Court Judge Michael Simon Oct. 26 for the District of Oregon in Portland.
Opponents to the stay had filed their own declarations with the judge, insisting the time for action is now.
“While it may be tempting for the Court to be hopeful that the parties may reach a long-term collaborative solution, history shows us otherwise,” said Jim Waddell, a former Corps of Engineers employee who now advocates for dam removal on the Lower Snake. “The endangered salmon, steelhead and southern resident orcas — who the Endangered Species Act is meant to protect — would not be requesting a stay. They simply do not have time to wait until July 2022.
“It might, at first, seem like just another year, but those years of more studies and more studies and delay upon delay have added up to over 20.”
Other opponents filing briefs with the court included Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research; and Deborah Giles, research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca and research scientist for the University of Washington.
The study Murray and Inslee have called for will include consultation with tribal governments as well as individuals and interest groups with a goal of addressing the needs of the entire region.
Shannon Wheeler, vice chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, said the voice of the tribes is being heard. “I’m very excited for the potential of the discussions in the year ahead.”
Kurt Miller, of Northwest River Partners, which represents river users, including power producers, transportation and ports, welcomed the news of the stay of litigation.
The question now, Miller said, is what the longer-term negotiations produce. “All the thorny issues are still there.”