Washington will lead an as-yet undefined process exploring how to help farmers, shippers, utilities and others if the four lower Snake River dams were removed to help recover threatened chinook salmon populations and Puget Sound orcas that feed on them.
The final two-year budget passed by Washington legislators this week included $375,000 each in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 for Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to contract with a “neutral third party” to set up and run the process.
The Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are collectively writing an environmental impact statement on the operation of federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and how they affect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. The document, a draft of which is due to be released next spring, will include an alternative that looks at removing one or more of the four lower Snake River dams.
Instead of trying to determine if the dams should be breached, the Washington process will focus on learning how the state’s residents and businesses may be harmed by breaching and what can be done to mitigate that harm. For example, breaching the dams would eliminate the barge transportation many wheat farmers rely on to get their crops to overseas markets. It would also make it more difficult for farmers near the Tri-Cities to draw irrigation water from the river, and it would eliminate the dams’ ability to produce carbon-free electricity.
If the federal agencies were to recommend dam breaching, something only Congress can authorize, Washington officials want to be prepared to advocate for appropriate mitigation, said J.T. Austin, a senior policy adviser to Inslee.
“This is an opportunity for folks who have interests along the river to come together and talk about impacts of a decision around the dams,” Austin said. “It’s more of bringing together the Washington voices. We could use what comes out of that work group to help inform the Washington position, or input, on the federal process.”
For example, Jim Cahill, a senior budget assistant for Inslee in the Office of Financial Management, said the group will likely examine the degree to which grain growers who use barges could switch to rail and how the rail system may need to be upgraded.
How the information will be gathered is still to be determined, but Austin said the idea is to have it led by someone without a stake in the outcome.
“Our intent is to get a third-party, neutral facilitator for that conversation. It would not be the governor’s office, and it would not be any agency that might have an interest in the outcome,” she said. “We want to have the conversation on neutral ground.”
Even so, the process is rife with controversy even before it begins. Many Republicans in the Legislature opposed the $750,000 price tag for the effort that grew out of recommendations from Inslee’s orca task force. Three groups of orcas in the Puget Sound region are listed as endangered. They feed largely on chinook salmon and often forage off the mouth of the Columbia River in the late winter and early spring.
Rep. Mary Dye of Pomeroy, a farmer and staunch supporter of the dams representing Washington’s 9th Legislative District, said the breaching mitigation study was killed in the House but came back to life during “closed door” budget negotiations from which Republicans were excluded.
Dye said she is not interested in seeking common ground that may lead to dam removal. Instead, she said salmon recovery efforts should should focus on habitat recovery, properly funding hatcheries, controlling predators and reducing commercial gill-net fishing.
“This is just to build political momentum for dam removal in my opinion,” she said. “This is all politics and all optics.”
Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said the federal process is sure to include an economic analysis that will ask many of the same questions the state intends to pursue, and state money would be better spent on things that directly benefit both salmon and orcas in the Puget Sound region.
“If there is an extra $750,000 available to recover those three orca pods, there are many unfunded or underfunded habitat projects that would have a direct benefit to those three pods,” Meira said.
Sam Mace of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition doesn’t see the work as duplicative. Mace said the federal government’s environmental impact study will not likely go into great detail about how to mitigate harm caused to people by dam removal.
“We don’t want a process that just researches the issue more. We want something that is looking at the ‘what if’ questions, and that hasn’t happened in a substantive way with all the affected interests at the table,” she said. “If those dams come out, what are the transportation investments we need? Where do we need rail line upgrades? What does it cost to upgrade the irrigation system at Ice Harbor Dam to keep farmers farming?”
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson is asking some of those “what if” questions. Simpson raised eyebrows at a Boise salmon conference when he said he has been meeting with stakeholders and looking at possible ways to save Snake River salmon. Many of Simpson’s questions are based on a future without dams.
Simpson plans to continue meeting with people who would be affected and talking with other congressional Republicans, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Dan Newhouse. The two Republicans representing Eastern and Central Washington oppose dam breaching as a way to save salmon and orcas.
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