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Every year, landlord Dwan Jantz comes to her field
near Wilbur when the grain is being harvested.

Photo by William Bell




Who has final say?

Only Congress can authorize breaching the lower Snake River dams

April 2021
By Trista Crossley

To anyone following the controversy about the lower Snake River dams, it feels like judges hold a significant amount of sway over them. That raises the question, does a judge have the authority to order the dams breached? The short answer is no, only Congress can do that.

In the Columbia River System Operations Final Environmental Impact Statement released in 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) stated that “significant modifications to completed projects…require authorization by Congress.” Because breaching one or more of the lower Snake River dams would result in major structural or operational changes, that action is considered a significant modification and would require congressional authorization, a lengthy, multistep process, said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA). PNWA is a nonprofit trade association of ports, businesses, public agencies and individuals who support navigation, energy, trade and economic development throughout the Pacific Northwest. Their members work closely with the Corps and advocate for funding to ensure federal navigation projects can operate safely and reliably.

Even legislation to breach the dams would likely not have an easy or quick passage through Congress. In the case of Rep. Mike Simpson’s (R-Idaho) proposal, Meira pointed out that one of the most challenging aspects of it is that many of the actions it proposes to take are essentially individual major policies or projects, and each of them would require significant study and review.

“Most of them (the policies and projects) would require essentially a two-step process through Congress, meaning authorization through one set of congressional committees, and if that process is successful, then a whole separate process to go through appropriations to actually fund new activities, meaning new policies and new projects,” she explained. “That’s how it works for any modifications that are proposed for Corps of Engineers projects. That’s one of the things that makes the Corps the kind of agency that typically garners strong support for its projects, the very lengthy and methodical way in which the projects have to be pursued through that two-step process.”

All Corps’ projects are authorized through a bill called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). WRDAs have been passed every two years since 2014; the last one was passed in December of 2020. Meira explained that before a project ever makes it into a WRDA, it is extensively studied and publicly reviewed. And even if a project is proposed for a WRDA, there’s no assurances it will actually make it into the bill, get through the House and Senate and get signed by the president.

“I can say there are many, many projects and other proposals that do go through WRDA bills but never garner support in the appropriations process, meaning Congress never decides to fund them,” she said.

And the likelihood that congressional authority to breach the dams might be included in another piece of legislation is slim.

“The idea that new construction or a major modification to an existing (Corps) project could be shuttled through an infrastructure package simply is not how the process in D.C. works,” Meira said. “The Corps of Engineers, they need to always refer back to their authorities, meaning what Congress has given them a permission slip to do. In this case, there is no permission slip. There is no blueprint to do what Congressman Simpson is proposing, so the first step is to actually try to do the blueprint, and that is a years-long process.”