By Eric Barker, The Lewiston Tribune
Biden administration officials bound by court-ordered confidentiality declined to participate in a congressional oversight hearing Tuesday focused on a leaked draft settlement of the long-running salmon and dams litigation in the Columbia River basin.
Instead, the hearing in Washington, D.C., by the Republican-controlled House Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries featured the leaders of stakeholder groups, namely representatives of public power and agriculture interests, and one person representing conservation groups.
It highlighted arguments both for and against breaching the four lower Snake River dams as a way to recover threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead that are well familiar to those who follow the issue.
Although not members of the subcommittee, Republicans Russ Fulcher of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both of Washington, were invited to participate. The three Republicans, along with subcommittee Chairman Cliff Bentz of Oregon, published a leaked draft of the proposed settlement late last month.
“This is in my view another attempt by the current administration to promote an unreasonable and irrational agenda for their energy policy,” Fulcher said. “The problem with this one is it would gut the Pacific Northwestern economy as we know it.”
According to the document that may not be up to date and could be finalized and made public Friday, the Biden administration is proposing to help the Nez Perce and other Columbia River tribes develop 1,000 to 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy resources. If Congress were ever to authorize breaching of the dams, the tribal resources would be counted as replacement for power generated at the dams.
The tribes have treaty reserved fishing rights on the Columbia and Snake rivers and have suffered from a dramatic decline in salmon runs following construction of federal dams on the two rivers. Along with conservation groups and Oregon, they claim the federal government’s 2020 plan to operate the dams in a way that doesn’t further harm wild salmon and steelhead violates the Endangered Species Act.
In October 2021, the two sides agreed to pause the case and discuss a potential settlement. The leaked draft is a product of those talks. In addition to helping tribes develop renewable power sources, the administration, according to the leaked draft, will carry out studies on how to replace barging and irrigation if the dams come out, and it pledges financial support for other salmon restoration efforts throughout the Columbia basin and would reform some of the ways the rivers are managed by giving Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes plus Oregon and Washington more influence over the river system than they now have.
Republicans and witnesses Scott Simms, executive director of the Public Power Council, Neil Maunu, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, and Humaira Falkenberg, power resource manager of Pacific Public Utilities District, focused on the economic impact of the losing the hydropower, transportation and irrigation benefits of the dams if breaching is eventually approved.
They also complained that the document was negotiated in secret — a common feature in lawsuit settlement proceedings.
Maunu called the mediated negotiations a failed process. Defendant intervenors have complained the draft settlement was negotiated between the plaintiffs and federal government and only shared with ancillary parties to the case after it was finished.
“We are tired of not being represented in this mediation process. We are tired of not being able to take part in meaningful negotiations. But we refuse to be sidelined,” he said.
Simms said the leaked agreement threatens the viability of the entire Pacific Northwest hydropower system.
“We are now facing a U.S. government agreement that could be devastating for Northwest electricity consumers,” he said. “We anticipate under the best-case scenario the impact to rates would be 5%. And in the worst case, it would be 50%.”
Lindsay Slater, vice president of government relations for Trout Unlimited, spoke in favor of efforts to recover the fish via dam breaching and at the same time modernizing the power generation system of the Pacific Northwest. Slater is the former chief of staff of Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who has proposed a $33 billion plan to breach the dams, replace their services and mitigate economic harm to affected communities and industries. He said the federal government has an obligation to the tribes to ensure the fish are recovered.
“For almost 100 years, the Federal Energy System has thrived at the expense of the Northwest tribes, whose villages and fishing grounds were submerged and salmon decimated,” Slater said. “It is unacceptable for any administration to continue prioritizing the competitive position of BPA at the expense of tribal interests in salmon.”
Newhouse told the committee, “If these dams are breached, those most negatively impacted will include electricity customers, transportation stakeholders, river-dependent ports and communities, farmers, and recreationists.”
Watch the full hearing here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK7xGZ94O5o
Barker may be contacted at [email protected]
or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker
–CBB, Nov. 30, 2023, LEAKED COURT MEDIATION DOCUMENT LISTING ‘ACTIONS AND COMMITMENTS’ FOR BASIN SALMON RECOVERY DRAWS OBJECTIONS, QUESTIONS https://cbbulletin.com/leaked-court-mediation-document-listing-actions-and-commitments-for-basin-salmon-recovery-draws-objections-questions/