Feb 20, 2020
Columbia-Snake River litigation has more than 90,000 acres in balance

Ongoing litigation over management of the Columbia-Snake River stands to affect a wide swathe of fruitful land in the West — more than 90,000 acres, according to one trade group.

At issue are dams on the lower Snake River, which ecological groups want removed because of fishery concerns. Irrigators say agricultural production could suffer a costly disruption.

Litigation over the highly contentious issue has raged for more than two decades, but the matter in 2020 is set to draw nearer a resolution of some kind. A public comment period ended in December. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee commissioned an Environmental Impact Study of the issue, and a draft of that document is set to be released soon.

“What’s being written is the final chapter in 27 years’ litigation,” said Darryll Olsen, a representative on the board of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. At the heart of the litigation is the Columbia-Snake River’s “biological opinion” — operating instructions provided to federal water operators for protecting 13 salmon and steelhead species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The state of Oregon and a variety of ecological groups have repeatedly fought the existing biologicial opinion in court, Olsen said. In 2016, U.S. Federal District Judge Michael Simon vacated the current biological opinion, accepting the argument made by ecological groups that not enough was being done to protect the salmon.

Native American nations and ecological groups such as Save our Wild Salmon and have been advocating for removing the dams.

“Restoration of the lower Snake River is urgently needed to avoid extinction of several salmon and steelhead populations and maintain and enhance the many benefits these fish deliver to people and ecosystems in the Northwest and nation,” according to a joint statement made in October by the Yakama and Lummi nations.

Growers have tried in the past for an Endangered Species Act exemption, but that’s increasingly unlikely, Olsen said.

“Judge Michael Simon is going to break something,” he said.

The governor’s impact statement will examine the environmental effects of removing the dams.

“In their environmental impact statement, they’re trying to demonstrate there would be severe impacts if you did the dam breaching,” Olsen said. “And they are correct, there would be substantial impacts to power, navigation, irrigation, flat water recreation.”

A recent white paper produced by the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, called “Risk Mitigation Response Alternative,” looked at financial risks associated with removing the dams.

In total, some 90,640 acres valued at about $1.4 billion are in the river’s primary impact areas served by the Upper McNary Pool and Ice Harbor Pool, alone, according to the irrigators’ white paper. (It didn’t examine in detail lands served by the Lower McNary and John Day pools, about 275,000 acres).

Many of the acres served by the Lower McNary and John Day pools are planted with vineyards and orchards. Olsen said the fruit producers such as FirstFruits Farms/Broetje Orchards, Gordon Bros. Family Vineyards and Wines, and many others are situated closely to the river system.

A major shift in the dams and water supply would be expensive for irrigators and potentially disruptive to agriculture.

“The breaching/drawdown action would create ‘distressed assets,’ where the assets’ value in the market is diminished,” according to the white paper. “The distressed assets are created by the risks associated with the uncertain costs of modifying pump stations, the unknown time frame for loss of operations, how effective the future pumping operations will be, and how the agricultural production markets respond to interruptions to site-specific supply.”

Olsen said the paper is meant to speak directly to the environmental impact statement. The white paper argues the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the hydroelectric dams, and Washington state, should compensate irrigators on the Upper McNary Pool and Ice Harbor Pool between $445 to $621 million for lost assets.

Ecological concerns will bring their own demands to the negotiation table, and some compromises will likely be proposed. One option is for water behind two dams farther upstream, Granite and Little Goose, to be gradually drawn down completely.

“It is an alternative that will be put back on the table,” Olsen said of the Granite and Little Goose proposal. He said growers in Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association aren’t excited about such compromise and believe an endangered species act exemption would be more appropriate. “We find it just completely irrational that some of the agencies and industry groups aren’t pushing as hard as we are for it.”

Negotiations continue in early 2020. In December, Olsen said the white paper had already brought some “favorable response from some of the leadership in the governor’s office” as a realistic approach to the issue.

“We put this out there because the situation is real,” Olsen said. “We’re looking at this and saying, we need to focus on we can do to mitigate (costs) for the irrigators.”

The goal is to keep the water flowing out to the farms as smoothly as possible. Nobody, not even the dam-breaching parties, want irrigation and agriculture to stop in the region, he said.

“It’s not a matter of abandoning the ground,” Olsen said. “It just takes a lot of money to deal with that.”

— By Stephen Kloosterman, Vegetable Growers News. 

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