Leaked Snake River dam memo has irrigation implications

The memo describes the current hydrosystem as the “primary limiting factor” in the recovery of several native fish populations.

A leaked, confidential memo outlining various options for mediating a long-standing legal dispute over the Lower Snake River dams has raised concerns within the agricultural community, including those who rely on the system to irrigate 

The solutions, aimed at improving fish populations within the river and reversing the adverse effects of hydroelectric power generation, according to the document, could also create issues by decreasing the energy availability and the water resource infrastructure dependent on the system’s current framework. 

“The proposed changes to the river system, particularly the breaching of dams, would have a dramatic impact on irrigated agriculture in the region,” says Nathan Bowen, Irrigation Association advocacy and public affairs vice president. “This is a matter of significant concern for us, given the vital role these water resources play in the agricultural community.” 

Such concerns were also brought up in a letter composed by Representatives Dan Newhouse, R-Washington; Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington; Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon; and Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho.  

The letter was attached to the leaked memo and outlined the potential impacts of taking measures such as breaching the dam, imprecise language, and a lack of transparency and inclusiveness in the process.  

“As best we can tell, this document reflects the negotiating positions of the U.S. government in the long-standing mediation concerning the Columbia River system operations,” they wrote. “Due to the document’s use of vague and imprecise language, it appears susceptible to misinterpretation.”  

The representatives expressed their concerns with the outlined solutions in the memo, which includes language from the federal government stating that the solutions outlined in the memo must “be the path forward.”  

“It is imperative that our constituents, whose livelihoods depend on the Columbia River system, have a comprehensive understanding of this document’s contents so they can anticipate and prepare for the wide-ranging impacts that will inevitably be felt across the region should the commitments detailed in this document be realized,” the letter reads.  

In addition to the representatives’ issues, Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance executive director, expressed concern about altering the current system without due process.  

“Altering operations along the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers, whether through shifted flow regimes or dam removal, would send ripple effects throughout the broader agricultural community,” Keppen wrote in the Western Farmer-Stockman in April 2023.  

The concerns are not new, with legal battles pertaining to the system spanning decades. 

An intent to sue was filed as recently as April 2023 by the Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League, and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, formally notifying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of their intent. 

Bowen and other stakeholders like Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers, Bentz and Fulcher say the ongoing debate and legal disputes over the Lower Snake River dams raise issues. Those, echoed by industry experts such as Keppen, revolve around potential impacts on irrigation, energy availability, fish populations and broader environmental effects. Addressing these multifaceted issues in the long term is crucial for those who depend on the river system’s existing framework, they say. 

“We respectfully request that a list of groups and individual voices that were included in the development of this package be provided so we can ensure it truly reflects what is in the best interest of the people we serve, as well as the marine populations it aims to protect,” reads the representatives’ letter. “Furthermore, we have attached the ‘package of commitments’ to this letter to assist you in providing us with answers to the questions presented above. It is crucial that clarity and certainty is provided so we can achieve our common goal of a durable, long-term strategy for the future of the Columbia River Power System.” 


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