Memo doesn’t call for breaching What does Biden Administration's move mean to stakeholders, region?

By Michelle Hennings
Executive Director, Washington Association of Wheat Growers


In September, you may have seen some press regarding the Snake River Dam litigation process and a memorandum released by the Biden Administration. I understand the way this was being reported in the press may have caused some concern and confusion, and I’d like to provide more information.

In regards to the litigation process, the stay was extended for 60 days, to Oct. 31. During this time, the federal mediation process will continue. We aren’t sure what will happen after that date, but we’ll keep members informed as best we can.

Separately, the Biden Administration released a memorandum to begin the process of seeking solutions between the parties involved in the fight over the lower Snake River dams. Overall, the memorandum acknowledged the dams must meet their commitments for reliable, carbon-free electricity, for agriculture, and for salmon.

Notably, although the Administration has been facing pressure from environmental groups to support breaching the dams, the memo does not explicitly call for it. While there is still plenty of work to do moving forward in ensuring an appropriate solution that both supports salmon heath and protects the irreplaceable benefits of the lower Snake River dams, this is a satisfactory step.

The memo ordered federal agencies to review their programs affecting native fish populations in the Columbia Basin and, if necessary, develop plans and budgets within 220 days that align with the Biden Administration’s priorities, which include: 

• Restoring healthy and abundant salmon, steelhead, and other native fish populations.

• Securing a clean and resilient energy future for the region.

• Supporting local agriculture and its role in food security both here and abroad.

• Investing in local communities that depend on the services provided by the dams.

What does the memo and the litigation stay extension mean moving forward?

As I mentioned, there has been a huge amount of pressure on the Biden Administration to support breaching the lower Snake River dams, and past public statements made by the Administration seemed to lean towards supporting that option. However, the memo did not explicitly say that restoring native fish populations is the main goal. Instead, it requires that federal agencies support what we’ve believed all along, that healthy salmon populations can co-exist with the dams, which provide clean energy, transportation of products up and down the river, and thriving economies throughout the Pacific Northwest.

While we are satisfied that the memo did not call for breaching the dams or stating that restoring native fish populations is the top priority, we and our partners are concerned about a number of issues raised by the memo (as detailed in a Sept. 28 newsletter from Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners):

Ignoring prior action agency consensus. The memo seemingly ignores the 2020 Columbia River System Operations Final Environmental Impact Statement that addresses how best to accomplish multiple objectives for the hydropower system.

Shifting recovery standards. The memo continues the Biden Administration’s shift to a subjective salmon recovery standard. The U.S. government has always utilized the National Energy Policy Act (NEPA) recovery standard for endangered species. The Biden Administration started referencing a new “healthy and abundant” stocks standard at the onset of this process. While we also want healthy and abundant salmon populations, the new “standard” is not rooted in either longstanding federal policy precedent or validated scientific research.

Failed process. The memo continues to give the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) a hand in what has been a failed stakeholder process, one that has been stacked against public power and agricultural interests. The memo asks CEQ to lead a multi-agency effort with the Office of Management and Budget. We believe this could lead to funding requests to fund dam breaching feasibility studies and other initiatives that could undermine the federal Columbia River Power System.

Tees up offensive by the plaintiffs. Over the next 220 days, we anticipate federal agencies, such as Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation, will see an effort by plaintiffs to take steps that would devalue the hydropower system and/or make hydropower much more costly for our communities with the prospect of further, costly litigation hanging over the effort.

What are the next steps?

The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) and our partners in this process will have to remain engaged. Before Congress can vote to deauthorize any federal dams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be required to do a study, so we’ll be watching future legislation for any funding earmarked for that purpose. WAWG will also remain engaged with our members of Congress who serve on committees of jurisdiction involving the dams and will continue advocating against dam breaching.