Farmers Smell Something Fishy with New Snake River Salmon Agreement

February 26, 2024

Federal officials, the governors of Washington and Oregon, and the leaders of four tribes conducted a ceremonial signing of a $1 billion agreement Friday to fund salmon restoration and clean energy projects and analyze potential alternatives to the transportation, recreation, and irrigation services provided by four dams that could be breached.

The Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative also requires federal agencies to update federal hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers. 

"Federal agencies are on all hands on deck to support the efforts to restore wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin," Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said at the White House event.

"This historic agreement is charting a new and exciting path to restore the river, provide for clean energy, and live up to our responsibilities and obligations to tribal nations. In doing so, we are also investing in the communities that depend on the services provided by the basin's federal dams for agriculture, resilience and affordable clean energy." 

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in Oregon agreed to stay 22-year-old litigation over declining salmon populations in the Columbia and Snake River systems and allow implementation of the initiative. The stay lasts until December 2028 but can be extended for an additional five years.

The agreement directs the Energy Department to develop renewable energy infrastructure for tribal nations capable of supporting "at least one to three gigawatts” to help offset potential energy lost by breaching. In addition, the Bonneville Power Administration will provide $300 million in funding over 10 years for fish restoration projects and hatchery upgrades, and the Army Corps of Engineers will make operational adjustments to some of the dams.

It also funds federal studies analyzing alternate systems for transportation, irrigation and recreation if the dams were eventually breached.

With the trust built during negotiations over the initiative, Mallory said, "I'm confident ... we will secure the vision that I think united many of us as we were striving forward of securing a restored Columbia River Basin -- one that's teeming with wild fish, prosperous to tribal nations, having affordable clean energy, a strong agricultural economy and an upgraded transportation and recreation system."

John Podesta, President Joe Biden's top climate adviser, emphasized that the agreement "really is just a handshake, a set of solid mutual commitments, ones we worked very hard to create. But in the end of the day, it's a handshake nonetheless."

He said "it will take all of us committing to this partnership now and for years to come to lift the words off the page and bring this agreement to life. I want you to know that President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris and the whole administration are committed to making that happen."

"But I think, again, this has been said, but I want to underscore it. This is only the beginning."

The National Wildlife Federation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, Sierra Club, Idaho Rivers United, Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association and the Northwest Energy Coalition joined in the agreement.

On Thursday, meanwhile, Western farmers, irrigators and shippers at the Family Farm Alliance's annual conference in Reno, Nevada, criticized the plan, which they said was largely crafted without their input and focuses too much on the future possibility of the four dams being breached. 

 During a panel discussion, Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Paul Arrington, Washington State Potato Commission executive director Chris Voight and American Public Power Association President and CEO Scott Corwin rattled off a list of their objections: Federal agencies directing funds from programs to projects meant to replace the dams' energy rather than those submitted by other applicants; the “siloed" nature of the mediation; and the agreement signers' emphasis on looking at alternatives to replace the four dams, should they be breached.

“That’s really what it’s about,” Arrington said, referring to the agreement potentially paving the way for future dam breaching efforts.

Mallory, whose office took the lead role in coordinating the federal government’s actions in the mediation, emphasized to lawmakers in January that the administration is not “making a judgment” on dam breaching. Doing so would require an act of Congress, she told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Mallory said CEQ hosted six listening sessions with stakeholder groups in 2022 and analyzed over 72,000 comments from the public. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service also hosted three public listening sessions in 2023.

However, Leslie Druffel, co-chair of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association’s Inland Ports and Navigations Group, one of the intervenor-defendants in the case, told Agri-Pulse on the sidelines of the Farm Farm Alliance conference that mediation discussions were always tilted toward the idea of breaching, even if other solutions were proposed.

When the mediation first began, she said, there would be 150 people on a Zoom call, but very few wanted to talk and those that did would never budge on their positions. When Druffel and other intervenor-defendant representatives attempted to steer conversations towards non-breaching actions like using tiny radio transponder tags to improve salmon tracking, conversations would immediately shift back to the dams, she added.

“I’ve looked really hard [at] other ways that we can create better habitat and travel for fish, for the salmon and the steelhead, because they’re important to all of us,” Druffel said. "And that is not what this mediation was about. It kept coming back to just ‘breach or don’t breach.’ And that was the only conversations that were being had.”

She said discussions then moved into “work groups” of 50 to 70 people, and later, into private caucuses, which she said felt like a "one-way process." During one of these caucus sessions, federal representatives only asked one question, which she said was the equivalent of: “What would you do to make your farmers and communities more resilient if the dams weren’t [there]?"

“It was so unfortunate to be held down and not part of a conversation that could really have been so much more productive and more collaborative,” she said. "And it just wasn’t."

Source: Agri-Pulse