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House committee hears conflicting views on Biden salmon plan, Snake River dams

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(The Center Square) – A House subcommittee heard conflicting views Tuesday regarding a mediation proposal from the Biden Administration to pause long-standing federal litigation over restoration of endangered salmon in the Columbia Basin river system and impacts posed by four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River in southeast Washington state.

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said the mediation agreement submitted in December to a U.S. District Court in Oregon had been developed by administration officials working “behind closed doors with a select group of radical environmentalists” to advance efforts to breach or remove the four dams.

“This process was never about getting results for endangered salmon,” testified Rodgers, calling it “a misguided mission to tear out the dams” and a “reckless pursuit of an activist agenda … with no scientific data to back it up.”

Rodgers said the federal government has already made “historic investments” to make the dams “nearly transparent” to wild salmon and steelhead migrating between the Pacific Ocean and spawning habitat in northern Idaho. She attributed fish declines to other factors, including pollution in the Puget Sound, sea lion predation and warming ocean conditions.

“While the administration will say only Congress has the authority to breach the dams, they wasted no time entering into commitments that bypassed Congress and agreeing to spend more than $1 billion dollars to achieve their political goal,” said Rodgers.

She said mediation talks conducted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality ignored the interests of farmers, irrigators, barge operators, recreationists, public utilities, and their customers across the Northwest. Rodgers said dam breaching would result in higher electrical rates, a loss of reliable carbon-free energy, and increased costs to transport commodities by truck and rail to ocean ports.

The administration’s Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative was accompanied by a memorandum of understanding between the federal government and the “Six Sovereigns” – the states of Washington and Oregon and the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes, along with a coalition of fishing and environmental organizations represented in the lawsuit by EarthJustice.

Rodgers equated the initiative to a federal plan to restore the endangered Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, which she called a failed measure that locked up millions of acres of forest lands, devastated the timber economy, and still resulted in a decline in the owl populations.

In contrast, Jeremy Takala, fish and wildlife committee chair for the Confederate Tribes of the Yakama Nation, said he was “deeply concerned” that the congressional committee was “hearing a one-sided story fueled by fear and misrepresentation about the Biden Administration’s Dec. 14 agreement and what it means for the people of the Pacific Northwest.”

“Some have called the agreement a backroom deal written by radical environmental special interest groups and rubber-stamped by the Biden Administration,” said Takala. “I can tell you this is simply untrue.”

He said the initiative was brokered by the Six Sovereigns, each with elected leaders accountable to their constituents with interests in both improved salmon runs and affordable electricity. If the recommendations are enacted, Takala said an analysis by the federal Bonneville Power Administration showed “little to no rate impacts” to electric customers.

Takala acknowledged that the process, like all mediation, is confidential. But he said the Biden Administration’s proposal, which is pending a judge’s review, represented “an unprecedented and long overdue” federal resolution of decades-old litigation to save Columbia Basin salmon. He said the pact upholds tribal treaty rights with the prospect of restoring sport and commercial fishing industries and “shovel-ready” jobs with economic benefits that “need to be factored into this discussion.”

“Columbia Basin salmon are in crisis, and the courtroom cannot deliver the creative and comprehensive solutions that we need,” he said, adding, “As the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed, treaty fishing rights include the right to actually catch fish, not just dip our nets into empty waters without salmon.”

Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, offered a different assessment. He said the parties involved in the mediation process “should not be proud of this settlement. It undermines trust in the federal government, will lead to additional litigation, and will harm electric reliability.”

Development of alternative wind and solar energy systems “simply don’t work as direct, one-to-one replacements for hydropower in the Pacific Northwest,” said Matheson, contending that breaching dams and replacing their resources would require spending “a lot of money and it will have a big impact on rates.”

Casey Chumrau, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, said agricultural interests were “largely excluded” from discussions regarding impacts to growers who rely on Snake River irrigation to grow crops and for barge shipping of 103 million bushels of wheat annually. That would require 310 more daily truck trips to ports if barging were lost, she indicated.

Neil Maunu, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said dam removal would have “devastating regional and national economic impacts,” fail to align with state and national goals for transportation decarbonization, and “ignore the economic impact on economically disadvantaged communities.”

Rodgers said she had letters from more than 40 organizations representing thousands of Pacific Northwest residents and businesses who expressed concerns over the Biden Administration’s agreement.

Tuesday’s hearing was conducted the House Subcommittee on Energy, Climate, and Grid Security, chaired by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina, who also questioned a “secret process” involving several federal agencies which led to the memorandum of understanding between the Six Sovereigns.

Rodgers and other Republican members asked pointed questions of a panel that included Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality; Jeremiah Baumann, a senior advisor for the U.S. Department of Energy; John Hairston, administrator and CEO of the Bonneville Power Administration; Mike Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works); and Janet Coit, fisheries administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mallory said the CEQ did provide opportunities for public comment while bringing a “whole of government approach” to the mediation process. Coit acknowledged a NOAA report which concluded that the best chance of restoring salmon involved breaching the Lower Snake River dams. Hairston said there are 31 federal hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest and their construction affects salmon populations, but he and Coit also cited ocean conditions and climate change as contributing factors. Connor said the federal mediation agreement provides “certainty and stability for all stakeholders.”

Two Democrats on the subcommittee, Representatives Diana De Gette of Colorado and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, also asserted that dam breaching would require congressional authorization. Pallone said Republicans have been unable to propose serious solutions to the issues facing the Columbia River Basin and are now “baselessly attacking the Biden Administration in order to distract from their own inability to govern.”

A third Democrat, Rep. Kim Schrier of Washington, called the issues “incredibly nuanced” and particularly relevant in her district, which stretches from the eastern Puget Sound suburbs across the Cascades to the areas of Ellensburg and Wenatchee.

“While a threat to salmon, the lower Snake River dams also provide Washington and Washingtonians emission-free, reliable, affordable energy, and allow farmers and growers in my district to irrigate and transport their grain by barge with a low carbon footprint,” said Schrier. “I’ve long said that the issue of the Lower Snake River Dams is incredibly complex and because of that all constituents who have a stake need to have a seat at the table. No decision can be made in a vacuum.”

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