Stakeholders dispute dam agreement Mediation result puts focus on fish, included little input from regional users

By Trista Crossley


The fight over the lower Snake River dams reached a milestone in mid-December when the Biden Administration officially announced an agreement with plaintiffs to the litigation regarding the lower Snake River dams that prioritizes fish recovery and was written with little to no input from agricultural stakeholders.

“The plan announced by the Biden Administration regarding the Columbia River Basin is incredibly concerning for Washington wheat growers. Agriculture voices were largely excluded from discussion of impacts and any commitments for funding and mitigation, even though we were ready and willing to share perspectives and insights to help find a solution,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG). “We firmly believe that the dams and salmon health are not mutually exclusive, and any future actions must be based on sound science and reliable data. Ultimately, the decision to breach the dams will take an act of Congress; therefore, we remain committed to working with our allies in Congress to ensure the integrity of the lower Snake River dams.”

In return for up to a 10-year stay of litigation, the federal government plans to invest more than $1 billion in fish restoration efforts in the Columbia River Basin. The government also commits to supporting the development of Tribally sponsored clean energy production projects that could eventually replace the energy generated by the dams, even as the government acknowledges that the power to breach the dams can only come through Congress.

“These resources provide the region options should Congress choose to consider dam breach while still meeting clean energy, energy reliability, and other resilience imperatives. The Administration, however, is not making a judgment on whether to breach the dams, nor does it have the authority to do so; that authority resides with Congress,” the Biden Administration said in a press release.

The agreement is based on the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative (CBRI), a proposal to the Biden Administration from the states of Oregon and Washington and four Pacific Northwest Tribes (collectively called the Six Sovereigns), that asserts that breaching of the lower Snake River dams must happen to restore wild salmon and steelhead stocks to healthy, harvestable populations. The CBRI relies on a single National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study and the August 2022 Sen. Murray-Gov. Inslee report and requires extreme actions to address fish recovery to satisfy and honor the U.S. government treaties with the Tribes.

The agreement also includes commitments to:

• Making adjustments in the operations of the federal hydrosystem to deliver a net benefit for fish while maintaining grid reliability and upholding health and safety requirements.

• Studying or helping fund studies of how the transportation, irrigation, and recreation services provided by the dams could be replaced if the lower Snake River dams are breached.

• Working with the Six Sovereigns to address rail, road, and culvert upgrades and/or removals as necessary for improving transportation infrastructure while protecting and rebuilding fish populations.

Funding is allocated for reintroduction of salmon in the upper Columbia River Basin, mid-Columbia River salmon stock improvements, and improved ecosystem function in the Columbia River Basin for other native fish.  

Stakeholder response

While WAWG appreciates the acknowledgement that the dams can only be breached by an act of Congress, the association is concerned that the U.S. government’s commitments within the document would put dam breaching advocates in a new position of power with regard to the future of the river system. This is extremely concerning for agricultural groups and other stakeholders who rely not only on the barging and irrigation provided by the dams, but also the low-cost, renewable energy that contributes to food security and the regional economy. Furthermore, the agreement calls for a comprehensive strategy to restore salmon and steelhead populations that largely ignores the stated mediation goals of meeting the many resilience needs of stakeholders across the region. The U.S. government has chosen to negotiate a settlement in secret and leave farmers behind, Hennings said.

Besides the fact that the proposal didn’t take into account the needs of all river system users and relies on a single NOAA study, WAWG and agricultural stakeholders have other concerns about the agreement, including:

• How the terms “healthy and abundant” are defined in regard to fish populations.

• The Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA) financial exposure.

• No stop to potential litigation in other proceedings. 

• A requirement for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to update/conduct engineering analyses for dam breaching, which are a prerequisite for Congress to vote to breach the lower Snake River dams.

The agreement largely follows a confidential draft proposal that was made public in late November as part of a letter from members of the Pacific Northwest Congressional delegation to the Biden Administration. It was the first public glimpse into the U.S. government’s position in the mediation efforts. WAWG joined with other Pacific Northwest agriculture groups and stakeholders to issue a press release criticizing the secretive nature of the settlement and opposing the draft agreement. 

Alex McGregor, chairman of The McGregor Company, reiterated that farmers work hard to be good stewards of the land and its waterways. “Sound science and meaningful dialogue must be the cornerstones to real progress, not lawsuits, secret negotiations, and ignoring concerns of those who would be harmed. The benefits of the dams are substantial and shutting us out from consultations won’t make them disappear,” he said in the press release.

“We have not been party to the conversation and are concerned with lack of attention to food security. The loss of ag lands should have the region very concerned,” said Matt Harris, director of governmental affairs for the Washington State Potato Commission.

Other stakeholders who contributed comments included the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA) and the Washington State Farm Bureau. The full press release can be found at
WAWG’s website.

WAWG has also spearheaded a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee expressing concern that his administration has been privately engaging with the U.S. government and excluding agricultural stakeholders who would be directly impacted by significant changes to the river system.

“Now that the ‘package of actions and commitments’ has been daylighted, our organizations are frustrated that nobody representing the state of Washington in these private negotiations has provided any meaningful or direct briefings on the substance and the impacts to the agriculture community,” the letter states.

Concerns cited in the letter include:

• Neither the “transportation upgrades” nor the “water supply analysis” include stakeholder engagement despite the fact any modifications to the existing systems should require agricultural input.

• Numerous other objectives outline the “Six Sovereigns” as leads, representing a shift in how decisions have been made under the current river operating system.

• While the document suggests dam removal is up to Congress, included therein is a requirement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conduct dam breaching “feasibility studies,” not only attempting to bypass Congress but reflecting on the longstanding stated goals of removal by many of the Six Sovereigns.

• There are no caps on costs particularly related to funds expended by BPA, and, therefore, what increases will be passed on to ratepayers.

• Littered throughout the document is vague language regarding governance and dispute resolution and, therefore, little understanding of how, or even if, stakeholder input would even be considered.

Signees to the letter include the Columbia Basin Development League, Far West Agribusiness Association, Washington Cattlemen’s Association, Washington Winegrowers Association, and the Washington State Dairy Federation. A full copy of the letter can be read at WAWG’s website.

Congressional hearing

In the wake of the publication of the draft agreement, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries Subcommittee held an oversight hearing in mid-December titled, “Left in the Dark: Examining the Biden Administration’s Efforts to Eliminate the Pacific Northwest’s Clean Energy Production.” Neil Maunu from PNWA, Humira Falkenburg from the Pacific County PUD, Lindsay Slater from Trout Unlimited, and Scott Simms of the Public Power Council all testified.

“We are frustrated. We have made it clear to CEQ (the Council on Environmental Quality), FMCS (the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service), and to anyone who will listen that we are tired of not being represented in this mediation process; we are tired of not being able to take part in meaningful negotiations,” said Maunu. “A critical reassessment of this process is essential. The (U.S. government) commitments lack specificity, rely on flawed science, and completely overlook the vital transportation, supply chain, and resiliency concerns of our membership. We demand a seat at the table. The CRSO BiOp and Record of Decision exemplified a sound approach to navigating complex issues and diverse stakeholder perspectives, and we advocate using that as the benchmark for ensuring a fair and transparent process. Beyond the immediate risks to river transportation, navigation, and safety, the very livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands reliant on this river system hang in the balance.”

A recording of the hearing can be found at