Trump Gives Dams On The Lower Snake River a Few More Expensive Decades to Live

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Lower Monumental Lock and Dam on the Snake River, Washington, USA. The river is the border between Franklin County to the north (left) and Walla Walla County (right). View is upriver to the northeast. (Image: Wikimedia)

This is straight dog-bites-man story: The federal government won’t breach four lower Snake River dams!

For decades, salmon advocates have called for breaching these dams. Federal agencies have resisted the idea. This story has long since gone into re-runs. The feds have been issuing biological opinions (BiOp) on operations of their Columbia River system dams since the Clinton years. The Clinton administration didn’t favor dam breaching. Nor did the Bush administration. Nor Obama. Nor, for that matter, has a succession of Washington governors. Federal courts have rejected all of the attempts.

Now, the feds have just come out with a new BiOp and a new environmental impact statement (EIS). In the EIS, they identified alternatives for operating the dam system. They picked one. The one they picked does not involve breaching dams on the lower Snake.

Did anyone really think that in the presidency of Donald Trump, they would do a 180?

We’re not talking about Grand Coulee here. The big dams on the Columbia’s main stem are classic artifacts of the New Deal: big public works projects that advanced the old crusade for public power and brought a depressed region into the electrified modern world. They generated enough electricity to make the Pacific Northwest (for a long while) a center of the power-hungry aluminum industry. They made a half million acres of central Washington desert bloom like the proverbial rose. They made electricity so cheap that people heated (and still heat) their houses with it. They eliminated big floods, drowned once-intimidating rapids, enabled barges to travel far upstream. They also flooded ancient native fishing sites, wiped out whole salmon runs, and helped push some of the surviving wild salmon populations to the brink of extinction.

The dams on the lower Snake were completed from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. The New Deal was over. The best dam sites had been taken. This was more a matter of divvying up the last of the spoils. Those dams make Lewiston, Idaho, a deep-water port. They add some 4 percent to the Columbia River system’s generating capacity. And they impede the migrations of salmon spawned in the Idaho wilderness to and from the sea.

In 1991, Snake River sockeye became the first Columbia River system salmon population — and the second salmon population in the nation — to be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). By now, 28 distinct salmon and steelhead populations have been listed in Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho, 13 of them in the Columbia and its tributaries, including its largest tributary, the Snake.

Puget Sound chinook, two populations of Snake River chinook, and five other chinook populations in Washington, Oregon, and California have been listed as threatened or endangered. (Others have simply been exterminated.) This has affected not only the salmon but also the Southern Resident Killer Whales — the Puget Sound orcas — that eat them. The orcas will eat other fish, but they dine chiefly on chinook. They are starving.

Some orca scientists argue that chinook found at the mouth of the Columbia in winter and early spring are especially important. Many of those chinook — and historically, nearly half the Chinook in the Columbia River drainage — spawn in Idaho. There’s still a lot of spawning habitat there, protected in federal wilderness. Earlier this year, a group of biologists argued “it is clear that lower Snake River restoration, including dam removal, is the single biggest and most effective step we can take to restore” the chinook and orcas.

Under the terms of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Columbia and Snake river salmon listings have forced the federal government to issue those ill-fated BiOps, In 2016, when he rejected number 5, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon pointed to the federal government’s “cynical and transparent attempt to avoid responsibility for the decline of listed Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead” and said the document “continues down the same well-worn and legally insufficient path taken during the last 20 years.” Neither Simon nor anyone else has rejected a BiOp explicitly because it didn’t at least call for a study of breaching. But he and his retired predecessor in the case, James Redden, have made it clear that they were tired of the federal agencies’ refusal to seriously consider breaching.

Simon said pointedly that “Judge Redden [who had rejected three previous BiOps], both formally in opinions and informally in letters to the parties, urged the relevant consulting and action agencies to consider breaching one or more of the four dams on the Lower Snake River. For more than 20 years, however, the federal agencies have ignored these admonishments and have continued to focus essentially on the same [fruitless] approach to saving the listed species.” He also ruled that the feds had to prepare a new EIS by 2018.

The federal agencies said they couldn’t possibly do it before 2021. Judge Simon gave them the extra time. Then, without providing a rationale, Donald Trump moved the deadline up one year. So here it is. In a letter to top officials of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown referred to the “arbitrary schedule, dictated by Executive Order, to develop the [draft EIS] by February 28, 2020, complete the public comment period by April 13, 2020, and have a Record of Decision (ROD) by September 2020. This timeline is significantly shorter than the court-ordered NEPA schedule, which the federal agencies informed the Court was the “minimum” schedule that would allow them to “do [the NEPA process] right.”

Did they manage to do it right? Gov. Brown didn’t think so. “The science is clear,” she wrote, “that removing the earthen portions of the four lower Snake River dams is the most certain and robust solution to Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery. No other action has the potential to improve overall survival two- to three-fold and simultaneously address both the orca and salmon recovery dilemma.” Dam breaching “reduces direct and delayed mortality of wild and hatchery salmon associated with dam and reservoir passage and provides the most resilience to climate change (e.g., reduced thermal loading in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers and better access to and from the alpine headwaters most resilient to shrinking snowpacks).”

“You would think it was time for the government to chart a new course,” says Earthjustice senior attorney Todd True. Instead, he says, “it’s surprising how much time the government took to do nothing,”’ Actually a few things are new this time around. True ticks off several: The fact that orcas are starving and that Snake River chinook are important to them has been better documented. (And the poor prospects for orca survival have gotten even worse.) The technology of solar, wind and batteries has improved and their costs have dropped. (“I think every day, the problem [of replacing power from the lower Snake River dams] gets easier to solve,” True says.) And the Trump administration has changed regulations under the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to make saving species more difficult.

As a result, True says, the new EIS and BiOp have been “built on regulations that a whole lot of people think are illegal.” Earthjustice has filed a suit challenging the new regulations on behalf of eight environmental groups. The State of Washington has joined 18 other governments in a separate challenge.

The environmental groups argue that “this package of regulatory changes undermines the fundamental purpose of the ESA” in a number of ways, including “[u]nchecked reliance on mitigation promises; [i.e. federal agencies’ stated intentions to do things they have no detailed, binding commitment to do] and “[r]edefining ongoing harms as part of the environmental baseline [e.g., not taking into account the ongoing effects of the existing dam operations].

Some regional leaders have started trying to figure out what a grand bargain that replaced the dams’ economic benefits and recovered the Snake River salmon runs would take. Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS) executive director Joseph Bogaard says that “after three decades . . . some Northwestern political and other leaders have become doubtful about the feds’ ability solve the problems on the Snake River” and have started trying to figure it out on their own.

Idaho Representative Mike Simpson hasn’t endorsed breaching, but he has definitely put it on the table. In March, Eric Barker reported in the Lewiston Tribune that “[l]ast April, Simpson made waves at an Andrus Center Conference on salmon recovery at Boise State University when he announced his commitment to saving Idaho’s salmon and steelhead, and framed possible solutions around a future with a free-flowing Snake River. There, he talked about mitigation that would need to happen to help farmers harmed by breaching and ways to shore up power supplies.”

In February, representatives of environmental groups, ports and public utilities — including SOS, the Northwest Energy Coalition, Seattle City Light, and Tacoma Power — wrote to the four Northwestern governors, arguing that “there is an opportunity to use the EIS as a springboard to collaboratively develop a long-term vision and strategic plan that will identify investments needed to recover and conserve salmon, steelhead, and other fish and wildlife populations, ensure tribal needs are honored and sustained, and strengthen the electricity and agricultural services that communities depend upon from the river.”

But Bogaard explains that while “the emerging engagement of the Northwest governors, several members of Congress and stakeholder leaders is encouraging, . . . they can’t do it alone. Congressional leadership – and federal dollars – are going to be essential.” Plenty of federal dollars.

The new EIS quantifies the costs of dam breaching. (Arguably, it also inflates them. Viewing the draft version, the NW Energy Coalition said that it “appears to significantly overstate the cost and the amount of new generating resources that would be required.” In 2018, a study commissioned by the Coalition found that over 20 years, replacing the dams with renewables, increased efficiency and demand response would cost the average household an extra dollar or two a month.) It does not acknowledge the subsidies embedded in the status quo.

How do you overcome the resistance of people with vested interests in that status quo? You buy them off by giving them vested interests in change. Look at Lynda Mapes’ account of the Elwha dam removals in her book, Elwha: A River Reborn. Federal money basically bought off everyone with a motive to keep the dams. To get vested interests to buy into lower Snake River dam breaching, one would presumably have to spread a good deal more federal money around.

Some of that money could come om a pandemic or post-pandemic stimulus package. Very quietly, some people are already talking about the possibilities. And why not? Judge Simon observed in his 2016 decision that to date, the federal government’s salmon conservation “efforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing.” Arguably, breaching the dams would keep the government from continuing to throw good money after bad.

But that is a subject for negotiation and legislation in the medium to long term. In the short term, what we can look forward to is litigation. Again. And if history is any guide, the government will eventually lose big, once again, in the federal courts. But “the courts are not going to solve” the underlying problems,” True says. “The real issue here,” he argues, is “are our key elected leaders ready to provide the leadership?”

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