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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lower Snake River dam-breaching proposal a ‘nonstarter’ for more than a dozen regional environmental groups

More than a dozen regional environmental groups, including the Spokane Riverkeeper, are publicly opposing a proposal to breach the four lower Snake River Dams, calling the concept a “nonstarter.”

The environmental advocates in Washington and Oregon who announced their opposition to the plan on Tuesday say the proposal will neuter two bedrock environmental laws – the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts.

But some environmental groups and area tribes have backed the new effort, saying the plan floated by Republican Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson may be the last chance to save salmon runs on the Snake River.

In February, Simpson proposed a $33.5-billion plan to breach the four dams. A key plank of that proposal is a 35-year moratorium on dam-related lawsuits and a 25-year moratorium on agriculture-related lawsuits. The proposal would also give agriculture a bigger role in watershed improvement and transfer fish management responsibility from the Bonneville Power Administration to a joint council of states and tribes.

The remaining major dams in the Columbia River Basin would get license extensions of 35 to 50 years.

More than a dozen groups, which represent various Western water and environmental interests, signed a letter urging Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray to “look beyond the initial appeal of Rep. Simpson’s proposal.” The letter also addressed Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, all Democrats.

Jerry White, the Spokane Riverkeeper, said the moratorium on lawsuits would hamstring his work.

“Any rollbacks of these environmental regulations like the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act are nonstarters for us,” he said, adding, “We use the Clean Water Act almost daily.”

The letter was posted online Tuesday and sent directly to the senators.

“I appreciate Rep. Simpson’s attention to these critical issues of endangered salmon,” White said. “I fully believe that Sen. Murray and Sen. Cantwell now need to get into the game and get involved and exert their leadership.”

The letter is the first public rejection of Simpson’s plan. Eighteen groups signed Tuesday’s letter, highlighting a rift among environmental and conservation groups.

“I think this public statement is way premature,” said Sam Mace. the Inland Northwest director for Save Our Wild Salmon. “There is plenty of time for all the organizations and interests to come to the table and start ironing out that stuff.”

Trout Unlimited also pushed back against the letter, noting the dire state of Snake River Salmon, which have seen extinction-level population declines since the dams were built.

“Frankly, from a fish perspective, this is it. We have, like, 20 years before we completely lose salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin,” said Greg McReynolds, the intermountain regional director for Trout Unlimited. “Everybody has concerns that are valid, but you can’t use valid concerns as an excuse to do nothing.”

The Nez Perce Tribe declined to comment on the letter, although it previously supported Simpson’s proposal, as has the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Colville Tribes. The chairman for the Colville Tribes declined to comment on Tuesday’s letter.

The Spokane Tribe continues to support Simpson’s proposal.

“I think we need to keep open minds,” said Spokane Tribe of Indians Chairwoman Carol Evans. “And to come to conclusions without having the discussions is, I think, a little bit quick.”

Of particular interest to the Spokane Tribe is how any legislation that comes from Simpson’s proposal affects the Upper Columbia River system and longstanding salmon reintroduction efforts above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.

“We encourage all of the region’s political leaders to work together to ensure that any legislation passed will benefit the entire Columbia River region,” she said in an email.

The internal conflict between environmental and conservation groups is, in many ways, a reflection of longstanding tensions between groups that promote compromise and those that take a more aggressive tack.

Locally, for instance, the Lands Council and Conservation Northwest have supported collaborative timber sales in the Colville National Forest. In 2015, they backed the A-to-Z project near Colville. Under the terms of that project, Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. paid for the environmental review of the timber sale, a move that garnered national attention and some controversy. The Alliance of the Wild Rockies filed a preliminary injunction against the project in federal court, although in 2017 a judge ruled the sale could continue.

John DeVoe, the executive director of the Oregon-based WaterWatch, said he believes that Simpson’s proposal will upset the balance between collaborative and more litigious environmental efforts.

“I think it takes carrots and it takes sticks,” he said. “And the voluntary incentivized type conservation and restoration just doesn’t work very well if there is no regulatory program to provide the backstop. So you have to have both. What the representative is trying to do here is eliminate the backstop, and in my experience the voluntary stuff doesn’t work very well unless you have the regulations in place to require someone to do something.”

Simpson’s proposal would exempt 26 federal Columbia River and Snake River system dams from litigation related to anadromous fish under the Environmental Protection Act, the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act. All Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-licensed dams within the Columbia Basin larger than 5 megawatts would be exempt from litigation and receive an automatic 35-year license extension.

Additionally, 25-year regional watershed working groups would be formed. All participating agricultural interests in the Columbia Basin watershed would be shielded from Clean Water and ESA lawsuits related to water quality. Although there would be no exemption for “bad actors,” the regional partnership program would be overseen by the state department of agriculture and resources.

“The result would be turning over much of the administration of water to agribusiness and the state department of agriculture,” DeVoe said.

He and others believe that giving agriculture a larger role in water quality and fish habitat management is a “recipe for environmental catastrophe.”

As for Simpson’s stated desire to collaborate and hear from various stakeholders, DeVoe doesn’t think there is enough time.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Let’s have a discussion,’” he said. “It’s another to be actively pushing for legislation that would be attached to the infrastructure bill that is coming up in a few short months. That’s an incredibly short timeline for federal legislation.”

Simpson railed against the criticism, calling the lawsuit moratorium a “fair trade if it means saving Idaho’s endangered wild salmon and steelhead from certain extinction.”

“It seems conservation groups who call my concept a ‘nonstarter’ and ‘dead wrong’ are more concerned about ending litigation against Northwest dams and agriculture than actually helping the fish and improving the watershed,” Simpson said in an email. “My concept is designed to improve the water quality and quantity of all watersheds in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana. The goal of my basin-wide watershed partnerships is to give producers and stakeholders who voluntarily participate in watershed partnerships a 25-year time out from litigation under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. I want them to be able to work proactively without the threat of litigation from tribes, conservationists, and the states so we can get our watersheds healthy for salmon and for all of us who live in the Pacific Northwest.”

Orion Donovan-Smith contributed reporting.