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SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. government is willing to help build enough new clean energy projects in the Pacific Northwest to replace the hydropower generated by four controversial dams on the Snake River, according to a leaked Biden administration document that is giving hope to conservationists who have long sought the removal of the dams as a key to restoring depleted salmon runs.
Still, Congress would have to agree before any of the Lower Snake River dams in Washington state are removed, and that's unlikely to happen in the near future.
The document is a draft agreement to uphold 168-year-old treaties with four tribes in the Pacific Northwest that preserved their right to harvest fish in the river, among other things.
The Columbia River Basin was once the greatest salmon-producing river system in the world, with at least 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead, according to the document. But today, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Conservationists say dams built in the basin are primarily to blame.
Conservation groups and tribes sued the federal government in an effort to save the struggling fisheries, and both sides notified the court earlier this fall they were close to reaching an agreement that could put the the lawsuit on hold. They have until mid-December to submit an agreement.
Amanda Goodin, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which is representing a coalition of environmental, fishing, and renewable energy groups in the litigation, said their goal throughout the mediation has been to prevent the extinction of salmon, restore the ecosystem and replace the energy provided by the dams.
“We hope to be able to say on Dec. 15 we’ve achieved that goal, but if we can’t reach that goal or discussions fall apart, we will be prepared to resume litigation on Dec. 15,” she said in a statement. Due to confidentiality rules, she said they would not discuss the specifics of the draft agreement.
In civil cases, mediation talks are generally confidential, but Washington state Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican, included a link to the draft agreement in a press release Wednesday. Newhouse has opposed breaching the dams, saying they are essential for agriculture, flood control and transportation as well as electricity.
"It is imperative that our constituents, whose livelihoods depend on the Columbia River System, have a comprehensive understanding of this document’s contents so they can anticipate and prepare for the wide-ranging impacts that will inevitably be felt across the region should the commitments detailed in this document be realized,” Newhouse and three other Republican representatives — Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Cliff Bentz of Oregon, and Russ Fulcher of Idaho — wrote to President Joe Biden.
The draft agreement says the government will help plan and pay for tribes in the Pacific Northwest to develop enough clean energy resources to serve as replacement power for the lower Snake River dams, whether or not Congress authorizes dam removal.
The draft also includes billions of dollars in funding for analyzing the region’s energy needs, improving transportation infrastructure, making the power grid more resilient and restoring salmon, steelhead and other native fish runs in the Columbia River basin. Oregon and Washington would be partners in the effort along with the four tribes and the federal government.
There has been growing recognition across the U.S. that the harms some dams cause to fish outweigh their usefulness. Dams on the Elwha River in Washington state and the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border have been or are being removed.
The Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe declined to comment on the document, while the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation was not immediately available for comment and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs did not respond to a request for comment.
Alyssa Roberts, spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the negotiations are ongoing.
“As part of the court-approved confidential mediation with Tribes, States, and other parties to develop a long-term, durable path forward, the U.S. Government is developing a package of actions and commitments that we are discussing with all parties involved in the mediation,” she said in a statement.
Utility and business groups Northwest RiverPartners, the Public Power Council and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association called the draft agreement the “greatest threat” for the region in a joint statement released Wednesday, saying dam breaching would hurt the region's ports and farmers and could raise electricity prices.
“This proposal turns its back on over three million electricity customers as well as the farming, transportation, navigation, and economic needs of the region,” the groups wrote.
The pros and cons of dam-breaching have been debated for years, but only a few lawmakers in the region have embraced the idea.
In 2021 Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho proposed removing the earthen berms on either side of the four Lower Snake River dams to let the river flow freely, and to spend $33 billion to replace the benefits of the dams for agriculture, energy and transportation.
Last year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington U.S. Sen. Patty Murray released a report saying carbon-free electricity produced by the dams must be replaced before they are breached. Eliminating the dams would also dramatically change the way farmers in Idaho and Washington and Oregon transport their crops, forcing them to rely on truck and rail transportation instead.
The town of Lewiston, Idaho, is home to the most inland seaport on the West Coast, and many farmers in the region rely on barges to ship their crops, while others use rail. Other lawmakers — including Idaho Rep. Mike Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch and Montana Rep. Steve Daines — have argued that the government should find ways besides dam breaching to save the fish.
In October, Biden directed federal agencies to use all available resources to restore abundant salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin, but Biden’s memo stopped short of calling for the removal of the dams.
The Lower Granite, Ice Harbor, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams were built in the mid-1900s. On average, the four dams produce about 1,000 MW of power throughout the year, though they can produce as much as 2,200 MW during peak energy demand, according to the non-profit NW Energy Coalition. Roughly $17 billion in infrastructure improvements, some of it forced by litigation, has done little to restore the fish to historical levels.
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho.
This story was first published on Nov. 29, 2023. It was updated on Nov. 30, 2023, to correct that Lewiston, Idaho, is served by a railroad.