The Washington State Legislature passed a $52.4 billion operating budget April 28 that includes $750,000 to fund a stakeholder process to look into benefits and impacts of removing or breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
Recommended by the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, the funds will be used to hire a neutral third party to establish a collaborative process to address questions related to removing the dams, including economic and social impacts and mitigation costs.
The funding came in a negotiated budget between the state Senate, which included the funds in its initial proposal, and the House, which did not.
Reaction to the allocation drew praise from environmental groups that have worked to restore salmon, and ire from those that could be devastated if the dams are torn out.
"We are extraordinarily grateful that the Legislature followed Governor Inslee's lead to begin urgently needed contingency planning if federal agencies decide dam removal is necessary to restore our salmon and orcas," Sam Mace, Inland Northwest program director for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said in a news release.
Meanwhile, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association (CSRIA) said it views the process as "nothing less than pandering to a small, but vocal, Puget Sound pro-dam breaching crowd."
CSRIA board representative Darryll Olsen said in an email to Northwest Fishletter that his organization is publishing full-page ads in various publications questioning whether the stakeholder process will yield any truth--or whether it would even keep environmental groups from challenging the new environmental impact statement (EIS) unless dam breaching or deep reservoir drawdowns are endorsed.
"Some ponder whether the Governor will use the study to politically 'save the dams,' and Eastern Washington, by invoking climate friendly hydropower concerns. We doubt it," CSRIA's statement said.
The irrigators association, instead, continues to push for an ESA exemption process, which would exempt the Columbia Basin dams from Endangered Species Act requirements.
But Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the orca task force, told Northwest Fishletter that she hopes the process marks an end to the fighting, and a beginning to working together to reach a common goal. She said she sees the process as a cost-benefit analysis of the dams that can be used to help the governor and others decide how to comment on the EIS, when it's released.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are currently preparing the EIS that will analyze the impacts of 14 federal projects--including Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake River--and are expected to release a draft in February 2020.
Solien said while the recommendation to form a stakeholder group came from the task force, the Legislature gave the governor's office broad leeway in deciding how to proceed, and it's not bound by any portion of its recommendation.
She said the funds will be available on July 1, but the governor's office is expected to design the process and choose a third party to lead it soon after the budget is signed in the next couple of weeks. "It's hoped that the process will be in place by the beginning of July," she said. "The state is relying on this facilitated process to help inform the comments and positions they will take" when the federal agencies release the draft EIS, she added.
Solien said it's clear that southern residents rely on salmon from the Snake and Columbia rivers at crucial times, but also rely on other salmon runs throughout the region. "The orca task force decided not to take a position on breaching the dams because we felt it was critical that the voice of the communities impacted be heard."
She added, "We're going to be very interested in what breaching the dams would mean in terms of salmon returns, not just for the orcas but for the region as a whole," she said. "We're also very interested--and caring and concerned--about the people and livelihoods in the region. It's not just economic. Those dams have become part of their culture, and celebrations." Impacts to the public power grid must also be considered, she said.
Before a final budget was adopted, advocacy groups from both sides of the issue lobbied both for and against including the funds for a stakeholder group.
Before the decision, George Caan, executive director of the Washington PUD Association, said his association signed a letter with multiple economic development and utility groups in the Tri-Cities area opposing the $750,000 appropriation, and sent it to key Senate leaders. "There's no need to use important state funds that could be used for something that's actually needed," he said. "That process by federal agencies is an open public process, and is the appropriate venue for these issues to be raised."
He said he understands that there's a lot of passion around orca recovery, just as there's a lot of passion surrounding the multiple issues involved with tearing out Snake River dams. "From our point of view, the passion really needs to be directed to those things that are achievable and have direct nexus to orca recovery," he said.
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said his organization hasn't lobbied Washington lawmakers, but agrees that creating a forum is not the best use of money. "At the end of the day, we do know that the federal operators are now going through a very comprehensive EIS process for the Columbia River System Operations, and that is a multi-million dollar effort that is aimed at actually looking at the science and determining what the best efforts are for the salmon and for the environment," he said.
He said RiverPartners shares the concerns about the southern resident orcas, and just as it has always been very "pro-salmon," the group also wants to see orcas recover. But when it comes to their needs, both species could benefit more from retaining a carbon-free power source, he said. "Hydropower is a really important carbon-free resource for the region, and is actually doing a lot of good in trying to negate the effects of climate change," he said, adding, "We think that hydro is basically a longer-term answer to addressing some of these serious concerns."
Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the Northwest Energy Coalition, said the process should not be about whether or not the dams should be removed. "That is an issue that is being addressed right now by the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process," he said. "What we feel the need for is to understand what all of our options are, and that means understanding the implications."
He said his organization helps communities deal with significant changes--towns like Centralia, Wash., where the Coalition's executive director Nancy Hirsh became a member of TransAlta's Coal Transition Grants Economic & Community Development Board to help the community transition to a new economy without its coal-fired plant.
"We are not assuming that the dams are going to go away," he said. "But we do think it's a worthwhile exercise to understand what the needs are, and what the alternatives are for addressing those."
Solien said that, in addition to funding the stakeholder forum, the Washington Legislature fully embraced the task force's legislation, passing three major bills related to prey availability, vessel noise and water pollution, and funding $933 million of the governor's $1.07 billion budget request for orca recovery. "We saw significant increases in salmon habitat and restoration, and we also got funding for hatcheries," she said. The capital budget includes $435 million for habitat restoration, an important piece of salmon recovery, she said.