In the closing days of the 2022 Congress, Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) weighed in on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA): “must-pass” biannual legislation that funds water-related infrastructure projects. Sen. Risch stripped language from the bill that he viewed as advancing dam removal on the lower Snake River in Washington. 

Interestingly, where he saw this language as a threat to the dams, we saw it as a hindrance to dam removal. What’s going on here?

For months, WRDA had been debated in Congress, with different versions of the bill passing in the House and Senate. Both contained a mishmash of language on the lower Snake River dams and the Federal Columbia River Power System. 

The House version featured language establishing a “Columbia Basin Trust and Task Force,” yet another regional collaborative process to consider the impacts of Columbia River Basin dams on declining runs of salmon and steelhead. This section was written by veteran Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who is retiring after 36 years in Congress. DeFazio has served on and chaired the House Transportation Committee, and has been a staunch defender of the Bonneville Power Administration and failed to use this leadership position to benefit Northwest salmon during his tenure.

Just last year, DeFazio was almost single-handedly responsible for killing a transformational proposal from Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) that would save Snake River salmon and steelhead from extinction by breaching federal dams, while replacing all the services those dams provide. Now, in what appeared to be a parting effort to preserve the status quo, DeFazio sought yet another regional collaborative group that would take years of deliberation. 

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who represents the Eastern Washington Congressional District where the dams are located, seemed pleased with DeFazio’s language, releasing a statement in which she characterized the creation of yet another collaborative as a “win” and, hinting that she worked with DeFazio to develop the language. She wrote:

“McMorris Rodgers secured the following wins in the House-passed version of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022:

Establishing the Columbia River Basin Trust and Task Force, Protecting the Lower Snake River Dams

This provision establishes the Columbia River Basin Trust and Task Force, which is made up of stakeholders that have an interest in endangered salmon and the benefits of the Columbia River System.  After receiving a report from the Army Corps of Engineers on the river system, the task force would develop a restoration plan for the Columbia River Basin to help inform federal investments aimed at restoring endangered salmon, while preserving the critical power, navigation, and irrigation benefits of the dams across the system. This provision expressly prohibits the Army Corps from taking action to breach the Lower Snake River dams.”

We saw this Defazio/McMorris-Rodgers collaboration as a waste of precious time, so in July ICL and partners sent a letter to all of the Northwest Members of Congress urging them to strip this delay language out of WRDA. 

Nothing much happened from July through December. But then, unexpectedly, Senator Risch used his powers to strip Rep. DeFazio’s language from the bill before it passed the Senate in December. 

Clearly, Senator Risch sees this a little differently than we do. But whatever his rationale, we appreciate his successful effort to strip this bad language out of WRDA. In the coming year, we will continue our work with the Biden-Harris Administration and governors to prepare the region for breaching of the lower Snake River dams, and we’ll continue to find ways to seek common ground with diverse stakeholders to restore these iconic fish.

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