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Wednesday, January 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Snake River dam differences run deep, study finds

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 20, 2019

A man fishes for salmon in the Snake River above the Lower Granite Dam in Washington state on Oct. 19, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A man fishes for salmon in the Snake River above the Lower Granite Dam in Washington state on Oct. 19, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Differences over the fate of four dams on the lower Snake River “remain deep,” the draft of a new study says, but there may be opportunities to increase understanding between those who want to remove the dams and those who want to keep them.

The draft is part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s $750,000 effort to find common ground on one of the region’s most contentious issues by exploring the views of those who support retaining and those who support removing the dams and by getting those sides to talk to each other.

The consultants don’t recommend either course of action, and note that debate over the dams has continued for decades.

“Despite some recent improvements in collaboration, many people remain wary of the cycle of study, lawsuits and court decisions,” they wrote. “There is both hope and despair about what comes next and the potential for progress.”

It will help form the basis for three “listening sessions” next month and give residents a chance to add their opinions before a final report is issued later this year.

It doesn’t make any recommendations on whether the dams should be retained or removed, but it does summarize in neutral terms the basis of the conflict.

“There are differing perspectives on how breaching and removing, or retaining, the lower Snake River dams will affect salmon and orcas as well as agricultural, transportation, power and recreation interests,” the report says.

Consultants interviewed 93 “stakeholders” – people with different perspectives on keeping or removing the dams, from farmers and fishermen to shippers and environmentalists. It also lists the many studies that have been conducted, pointing out where some of them disagree or use conflicting data, and the various task forces convened on the dams.

“The consultant team did not try to reconcile divergent perspectives, determine who was ‘right’ or decide which perspectives carry more weight than others,” the report said.

The final report will also emphasize summarizing what people think and providing some context, it added, to give Inslee “the diversity of perspectives when he makes his decisions.”

Inslee asked for the study at the request of a task force that is looking for ways to help increase the numbers of salmon as a way of saving the dwindling numbers of orcas who eat those fish as a primary food source. The dams create barriers for mature salmon trying to get upriver to their spawning grounds and for young salmon trying to make their way downriver to the ocean.

Sam Mace, Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon and one of the stakeholders interviewed for the study, called it a good first step at resolving a difficult issue.

“It’s going to take a lot of steps to resolve,” said Mace, who has been working on the issue for 20 years. It’s important for different groups to listen to each other, “just to try to understand each other and see if there are any common grounds we can agree on.”

Those kinds of sessions don’t happen often enough, she said.

State Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, who has been on the other side of the issue for decades, said it may not be helpful just to bring people from the opposing sides together because everyone has a conflicting set of facts.

“There may be some wiggle room on some minor details,” she said. “I think we’re kind of at the point where it’s like Solomon’s baby, and is it going to be cut in half.”

Dye said the salmon and orca populations might get more benefit by taking the money it would take to remove the dams and replace the power and transportation system, and spend it on projects that would help clean up the Puget Sound, like better wastewater treatment and infrastructure to keep stormwater runoff from flowing into the sound.

U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, Republicans who represent Eastern Washington districts, said the money would have been better spent on salmon recovery efforts than the study and the upcoming workshops. Federal agencies are already doing an environmental impact statement “based on science, not opinions,” they said.

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