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NW Fishletter #387, Nov. 5, 2018

[2] Trump Moves Up Deadline For Dam Removal Analysis To 2020

Editor's Note: An original version of this story included an incorrect name for the Council on Environmental Quality. The error has been corrected.

President Donald Trump got involved in Columbia Basin dam issues on Oct. 19, issuing a memorandum that will speed up the schedule for a new court-mandated environmental impact statement (EIS) and biological opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System by one year.

The Presidential Memorandum on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West includes a section for "streamlining Western water infrastructure regulatory processes and removing unnecessary burdens."

That section directs federal action agencies to develop a new schedule for completing the Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement, moving up a deadline to finish the biological opinion from 2021 to 2020. Required by a U.S. District Court judge in 2016, the new biological opinion and EIS will include a range of options for operating 14 federal projects on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and will include an alternative analyzing the impacts of removing four lower Snake River dams.

Washington Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse applauded the action, while reactions from groups closely involved with the issue were mixed.

They touted the memo as a clear win for Columbia and Snake river hydropower.

"Dams and fish coexist, and after more than two decades in the courtroom, we should let scientists, not judges, manage our river systems and get to work to further improve fish recovery efforts," McMorris Rodgers said in a news release. "Today, I'm encouraged by President Trump's action, which also meets those goals," she said.

Newhouse added, "While the Senate fails to act on our House-passed legislation to restore the collaborative framework that operates the Columbia and Snake River Power System, I am grateful to President Trump for speeding up this ongoing process. Moving up the deadline for the EIS is a procedural win that will give more certainty to the communities whose livelihoods depend on effective operations of our dams."

Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, called Trump's action "underwhelming," and said the accelerated schedule will only hasten new court-ordered mandates to take out or draw down Snake River dams.

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said Trump's memorandum is suspiciously political, coming just before the mid-term elections. "I don't think any of us in the region ... see this announcement as something that is designed to move us closer to solutions to the problems we face in the Columbia Basin," he said.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said she thinks the memorandum is a "big deal" as it brings attention to issues related to water allocations and the Endangered Species Act. "It just signals that the administration is really paying attention to some critical issues out West," she said.

Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, said time will tell how the executive directive impacts the process. "I think we'll have to see how the federal agencies implement it," he said.

Bonneville Power Administration spokesman David Wilson said his agency is reviewing the memorandum to get a clearer understanding of what it means for Bonneville, BuRec and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under the current schedule, these federal agencies will issue a draft EIS by March 27, 2020, with a final EIS to follow by March 26, 2021, and a record of decision by Sept. 24, 2021.The federal action agencies have 60 days to come up with a new schedule for completing the EIS a year early.

Olsen said he's not sure that when it comes to issues in the Columbia Basin, the certainty to be handed down by federal judges will benefit irrigators or hydroelectric proponents. He said he believes the new EIS process will only confirm for Oregon's U.S. District Judge Michael Simon that dam breaching or deep drawdowns on the lower Snake River dams are justified to improve fish runs.

CSRIA is an intervenor-defendant in the 25-year-old lawsuit National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, and has been lobbying federal agencies for an Endangered Species Act (ESA) exemption in an effort to exempt the dams from the Act's requirements and end the decades-long lawsuit.

Trump's action, he said, may only speed up Simon's decision over whether Snake River dams should be removed. Olsen also said he doesn't see how completing the process in 2020--while Trump is still president--will help those who depend on the dams. "I'm not sure they fully appreciate that the administration is not making this decision. It's the federal judiciary," Olsen said.

He added that instead of hastening the process, the agencies should be invoking existing ESA exemption statutes--known as the God Squad provision--to end the lawsuit by making the FCRPS exempt from threatened and endangered species listings.

To Bogaard, the memo was purely political--aimed at electing a handful of Republican lawmakers in the West. "The announcement seems more timed to impact politics than to impact policy," he said.

According to an article in The Sacramento Bee, Trump announced his memorandum on a campaign swing through Arizona, surrounded by five Republican congressmen from California's Central Valley. He promised to bring more water to California farmers impacted by environmental regulations related to salmon, which drew sharp criticism from California officials and environmental groups. McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse are also seeking re-election next month.

Bogaard said the announcement also appears to be an effort to boost the midterm campaigns of McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse, who passed legislation in the House to stall the EIS process, but which failed to progress through the Senate. "Whether it does, it's hard to tell," he said.

As far as the impacts, Bogaard agreed with Olsen that memorandum will apparently accelerate a new biological opinion and EIS, which could be good for endangered or threatened fish. "This doesn't seem like a game-changer," Bogaard said. However, he added, it also doesn't help resolve the issue. "This is dividing people and moving us away from solutions. And that's unfortunate for everyone," he said.

As a proponent of hydropower, Flores said the memo shows Trump is paying attention to the region. "These are big issues in the West--water supply and endangered species. I think it's a big deal. It just shows the administration really cares about these issues and recognizes they're complex, and it's important for the agencies to be coordinated," she said. The accelerated process also means a final EIS will be issued during this administration.

"They're going to be looking very carefully at the dam removal analysis," she said, which is important because the Trump Administration has identified the federal hydroelectric system as critical infrastructure. She noted that the president's directive will be challenging for the federal action agencies that now must figure out how to accelerate the EIS process.

Corwin said it's still unclear how the agencies will do that, but the president's memo requires them to stay focused on a completion schedule, which could be helpful. Also, bringing the federal Council on Environmental Quality into the picture could also be useful, he said. "In general, we'll have to see how it's implemented," he said. "But it's good to have a focus on sticking to a timeline, and to have someone monitoring it."

The memo also directs the secretaries of the Interior and Commerce departments to streamline regulatory processes and develop a timeline for completing the requirements for major water projects, expedite ongoing environmental reviews and consider the views of local operators during hydroelectric relicensing proceedings.

It includes deadlines for specific actions to be taken by secretaries of the Interior, Commerce, Energy and the Army, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. It impacts the Columbia River System Operations as well as the Klamath Irrigation Project in Oregon, and the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project in California.

For the Klamath Irrigation Project--also known as the Klamath Reclamation Project--the memo requires a joint consultation, now underway separately by the secretaries of Interior and Commerce, to be completed by August 2019. -K.C. Mehaffey

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