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Groups: Order Snake River dam breachGroups: Order Snake River dam breach

Water Lines: Environmental organizations are threatening to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Dan Keppen

August 14, 2023

2 Min Read

A coalition of environmental groups in August announced its intent to ask a federal judge to order the lower Snake River dams to be breached as a necessary step to prevent the extinction of salmon that spawn in central Idaho. The groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Army Corps of Engineers.

Activists concerned about salmon spawning have advocated to undam the Snake River for decades, focusing their efforts on four Lower Snake dams, just above its confluence with the Columbia River.

The Ninth Circuit has already held that the Corps has no authority to remove/breach the federal dams to address water temperatures; only Congress can do that. However, the Biden Administration is negotiating with environmental groups in a mediation to potentially alter the operations of the dams. Some are speculating that the latest litigious move is intended as a means to push the Administration to settle and try to get Congress to approve breaching.

As I wrote in this column last April, the Family Farm Alliance sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, urging his engagement on this matter, with an eye towards defending the interests of farmers and ranchers. Secretary Vilsack at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony in Eastern Washington said that farmers are well-represented in the mediation.

“Rest assured, we are making sure that agriculture is well-represented in the inter-agency process,” he said.

Removing the lower Snake River dams would send ripple effects throughout the broader agricultural community. For example, eliminating barging would lead to significantly increased transportation costs for growers. The negative environmental impacts of replacing barging with trucks or rail in the region would be as unthinkable, as it is infeasible to increase rail or truck capacity in the region.

Western Republicans in Congress and the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer stepped up in defense of the dams, and publicly highlighted their importance in the Pacific Northwest and their impacts on river commerce, agriculture and energy production. During the question-and-answer phase of a field hearing between House Republicans and the federal agency panelists, there were some interesting revelations, including:

  • There is no real equivalent technology that would replace the clean, firm hydropower the Snake dams produce;

  • The Snake dams are capable of ramping up instantaneously during peak demand and have assisted keeping power running in the Northwest and in California; and

  • Ocean conditions are impacting salmon returns - the undammed Fraser River in Canada recently has had poorer returns than the lower Snake River.

For far too long, the region has found itself embroiled in a litigation cycle that has done nothing to advance or protect the interests of the communities relying on the river system. Tribes, sportsmen and others find themselves looking for more abundant and predictable stocks. At the same time, those who rely on the network of dams and locks find themselves fighting to preserve their operations.

Unfortunately, it appears that some have convinced themselves that for one to survive, the other must perish.

[Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.]

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