Some groups are taking a close look at new details the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released Oct. 4 about the four alternatives being developed for the Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement, while others are questioning the process itself.

The alternatives are:

  • Flexible spill option, which proposes a block spill design for juvenile fish.
  • Low-carbon emission option, which would reduce spill to 110 percent total dissolved gas.
  • Snake River dam breaching option, which would remove earthen parts of the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams.
  • High spill option, which would increase spring and summer spill up to 125 percent total dissolved gas (TDG) at the eight lower Snake and Columbia River projects from March 1 to Aug. 31.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, told NW Fishletter he's hopeful about the potential of the EIS to use science to resolve decades-old disputes about how to best operate the Columbia's federal dams.

Others—including Save Our Wild Salmon Executive Director Joseph Bogaard and Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association representative Darryll Olsen—believe the federal review will just end up back in the courtroom, with operations to be determined once again by a federal judge. Olsen wants the federal projects to be granted an Endangered Species Act exemption, while Bogaard thinks other collaborative processes to resolve Columbia River fish and dam issues should be given the reins.

Meanwhile, the NW Energy Coalition is taking a wait-and-see stance. Coalition spokesman Sean O'Leary said his group is focused on the implications for energy, and new details in the dam breaching alternative don't get into how power now provided by the dams would be replaced. He said in an email that Fred Heutte, NWEC senior policy associate, noticed in the dam breaching scenario that TDG at the lower Columbia projects would be capped at 120 percent instead of 125 percent, which would provide greater flexibility.

In an email, RiverPartners' Miller wrote that his group was initially founded as the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery. "While our name has changed, we still support science-based solutions that help recover salmon, but we also pay careful attention to how decisions affect vulnerable communities [of people] in the Northwest. There is an important energy justice component to our work," he wrote.

Breaching dams or spilling even more water threatens to harm those communities without offering any reasonable guarantees salmon will recover, so RiverPartners opposes those alternatives, he wrote, adding, "Given the fact that this year's higher sustained spill levels appear to have killed significantly more juvenile and adult salmon, we are in favor of the lower spill amounts envisioned in options 1 and 2."

As for the EIS process, Miller wrote, "The CRSO EIS represents the most comprehensive look at the societal and ecological costs and benefits around dam breaching. If the region ever has cause to hope that we stay out of the courtroom, it would be after a major, comprehensive study like this. Northwest RiverPartners is hopeful all sides will carefully consider the countless hours, research, and discovery that have gone into the multi-year EIS analysis and work towards collaborative solutions."

But Save Our Wild Salmon's Bogaard said it hasn't been a collaborative process. He told NW Fishletter there's a lot of skepticism among conservation and fishing groups about the process overall. "There's a long history of these federal agencies producing a series of plans and spending lots of money and not doing the job," he said. "Salmon returns in 2019 are among the lowest on record. Orca and salmon, without changes, are headed towards extinction."

Bogaard said this new EIS is being driven by a court order requiring the agencies to consider breaching the four lower Snake River dams in the environmental evaluation of the Federal Columbia River Power System—now dubbed the Columbia River System Operations EIS. Yet three of the five alternatives are worse for salmon than current conditions. "The agencies have spent 60 percent of their effort on alternatives that are worse for salmon. That just doesn't bode well," he said.

Bogaard pointed to a handful of other processes aimed at resolving the Columbia River's issues—including Columbia Basin Partnership; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's orca task force and a stakeholder process to examine lower Snake River dam removal; and a salmon recovery work group created by Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Those processes, he said, are working to recover fish and orcas while ensuring communities remain whole and the Bonneville Power Administration remains healthy into the future.

Olsen, too, is skeptical of the EIS process, believing that regardless of the alternative chosen or the science behind it, the matter will end up back in court. In a follow-up email to NW Fishletter, Olsen wrote that preparation of this EIS is a more closed technical process than previous environmental reviews, making the irrigators apprehensive about the resulting technical product for irrigation impacts—both in regard to framing the impacts and the economic analysis methodology used to measure direct benefits and costs.

He said groups in favor of removing Snake River dams will likely see the draft EIS as inadequate because it does not review a broader range of dam breaching or reservoir drawdown alternatives.

"Given the previous decades of Columbia-Snake river biological opinion litigation, CSRIA expects the CRSO agencies' biological opinion EIS to be shredded in another litigation challenge; hence, CSRIA has advocated to the agency heads, and others, to engage immediately the Endangered Species Act exemption process, and approve a final mitigation plan," he wrote.

The draft study is slated for release in February.

The release follows the previous public update in May, when the Corps provided a rough outline of the alternatives and a 20-minute webcast explaining the process.

The current update is available on the Corps' CRSO EIS documents page under Special Topics.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.