A Kennewick-based irrigation association has asked the incoming Donald Trump administration to convene a “God Squad” committee to put an end to the escalation of requirements to protect Columbia and Snake river fish runs.
The request comes as discussions start again on tearing down four lower Snake River dams.
U.S. Judge Michael Simon in Portland has ordered a new environmental study, called an environmental impact statement (EIS), after the federal government’s latest plan for protecting threatened and endangered salmon did not consider whether breaching Snake River dams would save wild salmon.
Tri-City-area residents can comment on what the study should consider at an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at the Holiday Inn Express, 4525 Convention Place, Pasco. A stenographer is expected to be on hand to record comments. Written comments also may be turned in at the meeting.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Among alternatives likely to be considered in the study are breaching the Snake River dams, changes to dam operations on the Snake and Columbia rivers, securing more water under the Columbia River Treaty with Canada and changes to flood control.
We are not going to go along gracefully. We should not be in an EIS process.
Darryll Olsen, board representative Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association
The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association believes there should not even be a discussion.
“We are not going to go along gracefully. We should not be in an EIS process,” Darryll Olsen, board representative for the irrigators association, told the Tri-City Herald editorial board last week.
The Endangered Species Act allows the Trump administration’s new secretary of Interior, who is yet to be named, to convene an Endangered Species Act Committee, or “God Squad,” to set boundaries for hydro system operations.
“Those boundaries should actually reflect competent resources management, not empty gesture environmentalism,” the irrigation association said in a memo to the Trump transition team.
The association is hoping for a fair and equitable ruling that would end a cycle of repeated litigation, and escalating and more expensive plans for what is already the most extensive fish protection and enhancement program in the world.
The most recent judicial decision requiring the new environmental review ignored 20 years of improvements of the dams, increased fish runs, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries science on survival rates, Olsen said.
“It is driven by a biased court decision in what has become a salmon recovery industry over the last 20 years,” Olsen said, adding it is not how the Endangered Species Act was meant to be used.
The Bonneville Power Administration has spent $15 billion to mitigate the dams’ effect on fish and wildlife.
The expense shows up on utility bills, costing the ratepayer an extra 15 percent, said Chad Bartram, general manager of the Benton Public Utility District.
The current investment in fish and wildlife already is working, he said.
Above McNary Dam on the Columbia River, nearly 1.4 million chinook salmon were counted and 386,000 steelhead in 2014-15.
In 1992-93 there were about 800 fall chinook above the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, according to the irrigation association. The 2014-15 count of adult fish found about 35,000 wild Snake River fall chinook.
From Lewiston to below the Bonneville Dam, nearly 50 percent of fish survive the entire stretch of the Snake and Columbia rivers, with the survival rate at each project on the river about 92 percent to 95 percent, according to data provided by the irrigation association.
“When you look at raw numbers, something must be working,” Olsen said.
However, environmental groups and the Nez Perce tribe say salmon recovery efforts have not produced adequate results.
“The fish aren’t coming back in numbers that would allow us to have salmon as part of our daily meals if we wanted to,” said Elliott Moffett, president of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, in a statement.
Survival rates drop in low-water years like 2015, with about 40 percent of fish surviving from Lewiston to below Bonneville Dam.
Olsen said collecting juvenile fish and moving them downriver on barges — a practice used at Lower Granite, Little Goose and McNary dams — improves survival rates, particularly in low-water years. But the practice has been criticized as “not natural.”
Let’s make sure there is full vetting of the economic impact and not just worry about how many fish we are going to save.
Carl Adrian, Tri-City Development Council president
In 2015, fewer than 20 percent of fish were transported, even though up to 85 percent of juvenile fish can be collected for transportation.
“We are literally killing the fish under bad public policy,” Olsen said.
The Tri-City Development Council is calling for the new environmental study to look at the economics of the whole river system and the impacts to the upper Northwest of breaching dams.
“If we have to do it, let’s make sure we do it right. Let’s make sure there is full vetting of the economic impact and not just worry about how many fish we are going to save,” said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council, which has long opposed breaching the dams.
The four Snake River dams produce enough electricity for about 800,000 homes.
There is support for replacing them with renewables, such as wind and solar. But grid scale energy cannot be stored economically yet, Bartram said.
Dams are needed to adjust generation and meet demand for electricity, including ramping up production on the coldest days of the year when the wind is not blowing. Meeting unpredictable demands for electricity with predictable generators like dams is difficult enough, Bartram said.
The cost of breaching the dams has been estimated at $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion, to be paid by taxpayers.
A new power plant likely would be needed in the Tri-City area, Bartram said. Replacing hydropower with gas would hike customer rates 12 percent to 15 percent and add 3 million to 4 million metric tons of carbon emissions to the air.
Additional emissions would result if farm products now moved by barge on the river are trucked.
The Washington Association of Wheat Growers says the Columbia and Snake rivers make up the third-largest grain export system in the world. To move the same amount of wheat by road or rail would require 137,000 semi trucks or 23,900 rail cars.