Leaked 'secret plan' reveals Biden admin's $1B-plus proposal preparing for Snake dam breaching


A draft agreement negotiated behind closed doors by the Biden administration and advocates of tearing down the lower Snake River dams says the science is clear on removing the dams.

In what some are calling a "secret plan" developed with four tribes, Washington and Oregon, the federal government would spend more than $1 billion to prepare for breaching the four hydroelectric dams and to promote fish populations.

The draft agreement stops short of a federal decision to remove the dams, although it said the U.S. government continues to be "committed to exploring restoration of the lower Snake River, including dam breach."

The draft agreement has not been made public, but the Tri-City Herald obtained a leaked copy.

No one involved in the litigation is permitted to discuss the draft agreement, including those who were excluded from negotiations on a a long-running federal court lawsuit.

The Biden administration negotiations have been controversial because they have not included electric ratepayers, among others, who would pay the price for changes to how the hydroelectric system is managed on both the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., has reminded the Biden administration that Congress has the exclusive authority not only on any decision to breach the Snake dams, but also the exclusive authority to direct the study of removing them or to authorize replacement resources.

He was joined by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho and Cliff Bentz, R-Ore.

The proposed agreement was negotiated as part of the federal lawsuit that is paused until Dec. 15 to allow plaintiffs in the lawsuit to discuss the draft agreement and next steps on the dams with select tribes and litigation parties and to approve proposed actions and commitments.

On Dec. 15 the plaintiffs and federal defendants will either request a multi-year stay of the lawsuit to implement the proposals and commitments in the draft agreement or they will return to court, according to Earthjustice, which is representing a coalition of fishing, conservation and renewable energy groups in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit challenges the most recent federal plan for hydropower operations of the four lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington and Idaho for not doing enough to save threatened salmon as pressure has mounted to tear down the dams. The federal court case has been on hold for two years.

Parties to the litigation have pushed to tear down the lower Snake River dams, from Ice Harbor Dam near the Tri-Cities upriver to Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston, Idaho.

Science of saving salmon

The 34-page agreement negotiated by the Biden administration's Council on Environmental Quality quotes a 2022 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that says "the hydrosystem is a primary limiting factor in the recovery of 10 of the 16 salmon and steelhead stocks in the interior Columbia River Basin."

It said that the risk of extinction for endangered fish is moderate to high.

The science supports dam removal, among other actions, and "overwhelmingly supports acting and acting now," the agreement said, quoting from the NOAA report, "Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead."

However, Northwest RiverPartners, which opposes breaching the dams, said as it prepared to review the agreement as a party to the lawsuit that it would be considering mounting evidence that shows that the greatest threat to salmon survival is climate change impacts.

It quoted a 2021 peer-reviewed NOAA study published in "Communications Biology" that said the dominant driver toward extinction in Chinook salmon was rising ocean temperatures.

Among spending in the draft agreement is $5 million for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to identify the best ways to meet the region's energy resource needs and clean energy goals while accounting for breaching of the dams and the loss of their hydropower.

The Department of Energy would pay for the four lower Columbia River tribes — the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs — to develop clean and renewable energy projects

The Bonneville Power Administration will consider buying tribal owned or sponsored power under the Tribal Preference Authority, which allows federal agencies to prioritize purchases of tribal owned energy, the draft agreement said.

The wide-ranging draft agreement also includes plans to study replacing other services made possible by the lower Snake River dams, including barging, transportation and recreation.

The draft agreement also considers the rest of the Columbia River Basin.

Salmon would be reintroduced into the upper Columbia River Basin and improvements would be made in the basin to support lamprey, white sturgeon, bull trout and other native fish and shellfish.

Proposals for the mid Columbia River, such as managing predation and fish passage improvements, could cost as much as $200 million a year over a decade.

The Environmental Protection Agency would provide $85 million to assess and reduce toxins in the basin, which includes $17 million of grants already awarded to tribes.

As previously announced, NOAA will spend $60 million for salmon hatchery infrastructure.

The Bonneville Power Authority would increase its spending on fish and wildlife programs and would give the four tribes and two states authority over $100 million over a decade.

It also would start a pilot program to expand the use of grants and multi-year agreements with them.