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NW Fishletter #381, May 7, 2018

[4] House Passes Bill To Keep 2014 BiOp, Halt Spill; Measure's Sponsors, Others React

A bill that would keep the 2014 BiOp in place until 2022 and reverse U.S. District Judge Michael Simon's order to spill more water over eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers passed the U.S. House of Representatives April 25 by a vote of 225-189.

In a joint press conference immediately after the vote, bill sponsors Washington Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse said they were happy with the "bipartisan support" from their colleagues--eight of the House's 193 Democrats voted for it--and will now work with members of the Senate to push for its passage there.

McMorris Rodgers said scientists, not judges, should decide how to manage the river system and improve habitat for fish, and after 20 years in court, it's time to put litigation on hold while federal agencies develop a new biological opinion. Her bill, she said, recognizes the role that dams play in the Pacific Northwest. "That dams and fish can coexist is a story we really need to tell," she said.

But environmental and fishing groups that, in court, have successfully challenged biological opinions needed to operate the federal hydro-system are calling the bill the "Salmon Extinction Act," and said in a news release that if it becomes law, HR 3144 could lead to the eventual extinction of wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"I know there's going to be a lot of celebration in energy land, but for those of us who are fighting for salmon, this is a sad day," Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, told NW Fishletter.

She added, "We see this bill aimed directly at spill, and you can't get away from the fact that if you increase spill, you will increase salmon populations. That's the No. 1 thing we can do for fish that's in our power as human beings."

Some, however, contend the constant spill of water over eight dams to the state's limits of total dissolved gas has never been tried, and is a court-ordered experiment that could actually harm fish.

Hydropower supporters celebrated its passage. "Given how difficult it is to get any legislation approved by Congress, House passage of HR 3144 is a momentous accomplishment," Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said in a news release. "It's good news for salmon, which will continue to benefit from protections that are already working; for the environment, because the federal dams generate nearly 90 percent of the Northwest's carbon-free, renewable energy; and for families and businesses who need relief from rising power rates resulting from two decades of anti-dam lawsuits."

The bill essentially codifies NOAA Fisheries' 2014 BiOp for operating the federal hydro system until a new BiOp is completed and has taken effect "with no pending further judicial review." Earlier this month, Simon pushed the deadline for the new BiOp to 2021. Although his current spill order is in effect for only 2018, plaintiffs indicated in court documents they hope to work with defendants on future spill regimes, or seek injunctions in future years.

If HR 3144 becomes law, the April-to-mid-June spill ordered by Simon would immediately stop upon signing by the president, Newhouse said. He said Simon's spill order will cost BPA ratepayers an estimated $40 million a year, and could also have devastating impacts on irrigators and barge operations. He said some PUD officials have told him midsummer blackouts are possible due to the lost power production.

Newhouse also said the 2014 BiOp was developed after long negotiations, with input from stakeholders and tribes, during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

McMorris Rodgers said the ongoing National Environmental Policy Act analysis to develop an EIS that includes an examination of removing four lower Snake River dams would continue. She said the bill now goes to the Senate, where it could "die a slow death," but, she added, she's urging Northwest senators--including Washington Sen. Patty Murray who has publicly opposed the bill--to support it.

The House support included eight Democrats who voted in favor, including one from the Northwest delegation--Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat who cosponsored the bill. Eight Republicans voted against it.

Those watching the process, both in favor and against, said Senate passage is far from assured.

In an interview, Flores acknowledged, "It's going to be challenging on the Senate side." But, she added, she still savors the victory. "This bill puts this issue front and center. I just think it's really important that our whole delegation understands what's at stake," she told NW Fishletter.

Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the NW Energy Coalition, said his organization has not taken a position on the issue of removing dams, but they do want the EIS process that will examine removing the four lower Snake River dams to go forward, and oppose HR 3144 for that reason. "To that degree, we hope and expect it will die in the Senate," he said.

Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, said his organization never had much faith in the bill's ability to get through Congress. "There's still no deliverable. Until you get it out of the whole Congress, you don't have anything." He added that he sees flaws in the bill's language, and believes energies are better spent pushing for an ESA exemption that would remove the FCRPS from endangered species requirements.

Other reaction to the bill's passage included news releases from Earthjustice, which represents plaintiffs in National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, and from PNGC Power, a Portland-based electric generation and transmission cooperative.

Earthjustice said the bill "undermines bedrock environmental laws and forbids any action that might reduce power generation at Columbia and Snake river dams without an act of Congress--from spilling more water over dams in the spring to help endangered fish migrate, to studying the possibility of removing the four aging lower Snake River dams."

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said the legislation is not helpful to salmon, or to anyone looking to resolve the issues over salmon recovery. "It doesn't bring us toward solutions. Really, the region needs to come together, and this bill divides people and makes those kinds of outcomes less likely."

But Beth Looney, president and CEO of PNGC Power, countered in a news release that the law balances dual priorities of environmental stewardship and the desire for economic growth and prosperity. "Through the application of best available federal science, this commonsense legislation will shore-up the value and reliability of a carbon-free federal hydropower resource that is the backbone of our region's economy," she said.

Roman Gillen, PNGC Power's board chair, and president and CEO of Consumers Power, Inc., added, "Our region faces serious challenges posed by an ever-changing energy landscape and there is no silver-bullet fix, but I'm convinced the answer is not to be found in the courtroom. We applaud the U.S. House of Representatives for passing this important legislation and urge the U.S. Senate to follow suit." -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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