KENNEWICK — Advocates for retaining the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington are questioning whether the Columbia Basin Collaborative to recover threatened and endangered salmon species will give fair representation to Eastern Washington interests.
The Columbia Basin Collaborative was introduced last year by the governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana to move past continuing litigation to find a solution to saving threatened and endangered salmon.
As Gov. Jay Inslee said in February the collaborative effort would help the states “achieve salmon recovery goals in a manner that is consistent with protecting and enhancing clean, reliable and affordable energy, transportation systems and agriculture,” all important to Eastern Washington.
“Conversations among different interests and across party lines are essential to identifying creative solutions that work for salmon, energy and the economy. This is important — to Washington’s tribes, people, economy and culture,” he said.
But now Northwest RiverPartners — a nonprofit representing community-owned utilities, farmers, ports and businesses — says that “unfortunately, the collaborative has failed to live up to its name.”
“Alarmingly, 19 of the 22 seats not set aside for federal or state agencies are earmarked for organizations that have passed resolutions in favor of breaching the four lower Snake River dams,” it said in a statement.
In addition the state of Oregon has one of the seats on the collaborative, despite a motion it filed on Friday in U.S. District Court in Portland asking the court to take control of the Columbia River System Operations.
“We have said that Oregon can’t be a sincere partner or arbiter if it is litigating behind the scenes,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of NorthwestRiver Partners. “As an organizer, Oregon needs to be above reproach so participants have the chance at a fair and unbiased outcome.”
The collaborative board will have 20 to 30 seats, with the number expected to be near 30 given the number of tribes, which support breaching, wanting to participate, Miller said.
“Our members embrace the critical importance of healthy salmon populations for the region’s people, most especially recognizing the sacred place of salmon for the Northwest’s Tribal Nations,” Northwest RiverPartners said in a statement.
“However, the collaborative’s proposed structure does not offer the opportunity for an equitable balance of voices to engage in what should be an intellectually honest discussion about the many factors that influence salmon survival,” the group said.
Northwest RiverPartners is calling for the collaborative to start with a baseline that recognizes the threat of climate change to salmon populations, particularly in the ocean.
A 2021 study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study indicates that chinook salmon may go extinct in less than 60 years if the Pacific Ocean continues to warm at its current rate.
In addition to state and federal seats and those for tribes, there are eight seats on the board for various interest groups.
Two of them go to “river economies” groups, which could be expected to support retaining the lower Snake River dams.
They could be assigned to represent shippers that depend on the Columbia and Snake River dams to barge wheat for export and other goods. They also could be used to represent farmers dependent on dams for their irrigation systems.
Another two would go to utilities that rely on low-cost electricity generated by hydroelectric dams.
However, one of the seats could go to Seattle City Light, a municipal electricity, that might land on the side of breaching the Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Granite and Lower Monumental dams on the Snake River.
Two seats would go to ocean or river fishing interests, which have supported breaching the dams. And the final two would go to conservation groups that favor dam breaching.
Northwest RiverPartners says that the collaborative’s working groups also should be balanced to represent voices in the region and that the multiple uses of the hydropower system should be considered.
It also wants participants, including the state of Oregon, as co-chairman, to drop lawsuits to remain a part of the collaborative process.
Oregon river lawsuit
The motion filed in federal court by the state of Oregon on Friday asking the court to take control of the Columbia River System Operations is similar to a lawsuit also filed Friday by Earthjustice, a nonprofit representing conservation and fishing groups.
The lawsuits ask the court to significantly increase the amount of water spilled over the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake River from the Pacific Ocean through Eastern Washington in an attempt to help young salmon reach the Columbia River.
“Oregon’s motion would more than double the region’s risk of blackouts when electricity is most needed to preserve lives during extreme weather events,” Miller said.
Spilling more water reduces the water available to produce electricity. Just two weeks ago utilities relied on the full capabilities of the hydropower system for the energy need to keep air-conditioners running during the record-breaking heat dome that covered the entire Northwest, he said.
Earthjustice says the heat wave added a new level of urgency to provide more spill over Columbia and Snake river dams as a stop-gap measure to slow the trend toward extinction of endangered salmon and steelhead.
Increasing the spill would help flush juvenile fish along their migration, it said. It also seeks lowered reservoir levels to help speed fish through reservoirs that are routinely too hot, it said.
”Columbia and Snake river salmon and orcas are in crisis,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit working to protect and restore the water quality of the Columbia River.
”We need an injunction to keep the Army Corps and Bonneville Power Administration from driving salmon to extinction,” he said.