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Trump wants to speed up the Snake River dams decision. Democrats wonder why the rush

Criticism of speeding up a study looking at removing the Lower Snake River dams smells like an attempt to undermine the study’s validity, says Tri-Cities Congressman Dan Newhouse.

In October 2018 President Trump required that a new environmental study on management of the Columbia and Snake rivers hydro system be completed a year sooner than previously planned.

The study now is scheduled to be completed in September 2020, before Trump’s current term of office ends. A decision on how to best operate the hydro system is expected to be made based on the study .

Trump ordered the shortened schedule as part of an initiative to streamline regulatory processes for water projects in the West.

IMG_Snake_River_Dam_4_1_OQE8HFME_L410208790.JPG
This elevated fish ladder is designed to help migrating fish swim through the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River near Almota, Wash. File AP

In 2016, a federal judge in Portland overturned a 2014 management plan for the dams, finding it did too little to protect salmon runs, and ordered a new management plan, called a biological opinion, or BiOp, be adopted by September 2021.

The environmental study being done for the new BiOp includes the option of tearing down Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams in Eastern Washington.

Murrray, Cantwell oppose schedule

Ten Democratic senators and representatives representing Washington state and Oregon sent a letter last month to the Council on Environmental Quality outlining their concerns with the shortened scheduled.

The council oversees compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, including the environmental study underway.

The signers included Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

“The ongoing regulatory process of information gathering, public comment, modeling and science-based analysis risks being short circuited by the imposition of the seemingly arbitrary date of completion dictated by the president’s executive action,” said the letter, dated March 13.

The new timeline has significantly shortened the time frame for public comment and reduced the time allotted for consideration of the public feedback, the letter said.

Ice Harbor Dam
Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco is one of the four Snake River dams that is being considered for removal in a new federal study. File Idaho Statesman

The schedule, announced in January, has the potential to undermine the study and the new BiOp, “which would threaten the imperative to establish a viable long-term Columbia River System management plan,” the letter said.

It is important that a new BiOp be driven by data and science, have public confidence and be in place as soon as is practical and not on a timeline that places undue limitations on the work, the letter said.

The three agencies leading the environmental study — the Army Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration — said in January that they had a schedule that would meet Trump’s order and legal requirements under the national Environmental Policy Act.

Newhouse supports schedule

The agencies said they can meet the legal requirement for a 45-day public comment period after a draft of the environmental study is released in February 2020 on the revised schedule. But the amount of time spent processing the comments received would be shortened.

“It is disappointing to see my colleagues politicizing this process by questioning the ability of the federal agencies to conduct a thorough environmental review,” Newhouse, R-Wash., said recently after learning of the letter.

Expediting work on a new BiOp for government operations of dams will allow river users to have more certainty and allow implementation of measures benefiting fish a year sooner, he said.

“The people and communities whose livelihoods depend on the operations of the Lower Snake dams deserve certainty on management of the river system sooner rather than later,” he said.

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Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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