Is The End In Sight For Snake River Commercial Navigation?

The White House released an agreement on December 14 between the U.S. government and environmental non-profits, tribes and other parties that have been fighting and litigating for years over four dams on the Lower Snake River.

The agreement calls for a 10-year pause in litigation over the four dams, in return for additional funding to restore native fish in the Columbia River Basin, the development of 1 to 3 gigawatts of tribal-sponsored clean energy, increased flexibility in dam operations to benefit fish populations and undertaking studies of dam services if Congress decides to breach the dams at some point.

Navigation and power interests criticized the deal, saying they were shut out of the negotiations and that their constituents were denied representation and input. Neil Maunu, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, said, “We are extremely disappointed in the flawed process that led to these [commitments] , which would eliminate shipping and river transportation in Idaho and eastern Washington and remove over 48,000 acres from food production.” The commitments, he said, threaten the livelihoods of farmers, ports and barging operators.

The agreement came as a judicial stay on litigation expired on December 15. In the long series of fights over the Snake/Columbia River dams, three federal judges have rejected six different plans for managing the dams.

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‘Extreme Concern’

In a joint statement, the executive directors of Northwest RiverPartners, the Public Power Council and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association expressed “extreme concern” about the transparency of the process and the agreement’s impacts on millions of Northwesterners. The statement said, “Our organizations have repeatedly looked for ways to find common ground with the plaintiffs’ concerns during the mediation process, submitting numerous inputs, documents and studies. Instead of working with all interests, the U.S. government chose for months to hold secret negotiations and refused to share any details with us, let alone allow our participation. It is not surprising, then, that this proposal turns its back on over 3 million electricity customers as well as the farming, transportation, navigation and economic needs of the region. By purposely excluding our respective organizations from the negotiations, literally millions of Northwest residents were deprived of fair representation in this process.”

Between them, the Snake and Columbia rivers have 18 dams.  They provide clean hydropower to the Columbia Basin as well as creating pools for commercial navigation that allow farmers to export their products to overseas markets—including farmers as far inland as Idaho. Together, the rivers drain an area roughly the size of Texas.

Critics have long blamed the dams—especially the four lower Snake River dams: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite—for drastic declines in 18 fish species that spawn in rivers but live in open ocean, including several varieties of salmon and steelhead trout. They blame the dams for, among other things, an increase in water temperatures that create “thermal barriers” to fish migration. The Walla Walla Engineer District, which manages the locks and dams, counters that the scientific evidence is not conclusive and that climate change is raising water temperatures regardless of dams. 

Mitigation efforts by the Corps, including fish passages, have improved numbers in some species, but their numbers remain far below those of their pre-dam populations. Some species remain endangered. Lately, some have also blamed the dams for declines in populations of orcas, which depend on salmon and other spawning fish as a food source. As of 2023, 13 salmon and steelhead stocks are listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia Basin, including seven Interior Columbia Basin stocks.

The environmental interests and native tribes behind the agreement— spearheaded by Earthjustice, an environmental litigation firm—are openly applauding it as a step on the road to tearing down the four dams on the Snake River. A press release by Columbia RiverKeeper read, “Agreement Outlines Path to Snake River Dam Removal.”

Tearing down the dams requires an act of Congress, which the agreement doesn’t explicitly call for. The 10 years allows for the development of between 1 and 3 kilowatts of electric power from other sources for the various native tribes to replace the clean hydropower they would lose if the dams were closed. It also devotes hundreds of millions of dollars to increasing salmon runs by various mitigation schemes.

In effect, the agreement gives the Corps a last chance and 10 years to show that anything short of dam removal can work to increase fish runs.