No doubt, there are fringe benefits to working from home as we practice social distancing during the Covid-19 outbreak: It’s always Casual Sweats-and-T-shirt Day; there are fewer mind-numbingly unproductive meetings; and plenty of distractions — from kids to pets — to break up the day.
But we’re learning there are times when having everyone in the same office has its advantages, and that teleconferencing — especially when IT isn’t around to look at your home Wi-Fi router — has its limits.
That’s been the experience of the federal government as it has attempted to honor those social distancing mandates while at the same time responding to its duties to public transparency and participation. Federal agencies have done so by swapping out public hearings and opportunities to testify for a virtual town hall as they consider a plan to increase the number of salmon and steelhead returning to spawning grounds in the tributaries of the Columbia River, preventing the extinction of those fish species, as well as that of endangered Salish Sea orca whales, which depend on salmon for much of their diet.
The agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, which manages the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, earlier this year, issued a draft environmental impact statement that outlined options to improve runs of salmon and steelhead. Among its recommendations, the most controversial, addressed a proposal debated for years to remove four BPA dams in southeastern Washington state on the lower Snake River, the Columbia’s largest tributary. The preferred option recommends keeping the dams in place.
Already three such teleconferences have taken limited testimony on the proposals. Earlier opportunities on the issue have drawn standing-room-only crowds to take testimony, opposing and supporting the dams’ removal from environmental groups, farmers, shippers, tribes, commercial and sports fishers, officials from utilities and communities and private citizens.
These public comments — even as diverse as they are — are important to the process of reaching a final recommendation, because they assure all options get fair consideration and that a sufficient level of trust about the political process can be established.
But public hearing by teleconference may still have some bugs to work out. At the second of six such teleconferences, held between 4 and 8 p.m., March 18, a total of 33 people — a fraction of what’s typical for an in-person public hearing — provided testimony of up to three minutes. But, reports public radio’s KUOW (94.9 FM), there was also a lot of dead air, with up to a half-hour between comments.
“It was, in our minds, inadequate to start with, with a very short 45-day comment period for the purposes of receiving comments from the public on a document that exceeds 8,000 pages,” Joseph Bogaard, with the group Save Our Wild Salmon, told KUOW. “This inadequacy and insufficiency on the part of the public comment process has been greatly exacerbated by the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.”
Three more teleconferences are scheduled for March 25, 26 and 31.
And comment is key to guiding a final decision. Breaching the four dams, east of the Tri-Cities — the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose Lock and Lower Granite Lake — could mean a significant improvement in salmon and steelhead habitat but it could also come at a significant cost.
Opponents of removing the dams point to the loss of hydroelectric power at a time when lawmakers for western states have promised to move as closely as possible to 100 percent “clean” power on the electrical grid; the dams will be necessary to replacing coal-fired power plants and other carbon-intensive sources. The dams also are a source of irrigation for farmers east of the Cascade Range and provide barge transportation for crops.
As well, opponents, recognizing the need to improve fish runs, say that other options for helping salmon can be effective, including increasing the spill of water over the dams and other work to improve habitat.
But, say supporters of removing the dams, many of those efforts haven’t been effective on their own and should be part of an overall plan that includes dam removal.
There are other options to respond to the needs of farmers, they have said, including moving irrigation pumps and switching the transportation of crops to freight rail, which already is available. Likewise, the four dams contribute a relatively small amount of electricity to the grid and can be replaced as more options for clean energy, including wind and solar, are further developed.
And the dams’ removal would help bring back salmon runs. The agencies’ draft report, even though it does not recommend removal of the dams, estimates that breaching them would increase the number of salmon returning to the site of the furthest east of the dams — Lower Granite — by 170 percent. That’s an improvement — and a promise for salmon and orca survival — that cannot be easily dismissed.
Which brings us back to the public’s role in reaching a decision about the various plans and the fate of the dams.
The agencies involved deserve appreciation for trying to make the best of a difficult situation through the attempt at public hearings by teleconference. But it’s clear that not enough of the interest groups and public whose insight is necessary to the process, are aware of how to participate. And it’s not clear that any public process will be able to return to in-person public hearings anytime soon.
Public hearings by teleconferencing is the best option available, but until more can find a comfort level with them, the opportunities for public comment should be expanded. More such hearings by phone should be scheduled and the deadline for written comments should be pushed beyond the current April 13 date.
The Covid-19 outbreak has required adjustments to how things get done, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of good decisions that will guide the fate of salmon, orcas — and ourselves — long after this outbreak has passed.
How to comment
To participate in the public hearing teleconferences scheduled for 4 to 8 p.m. (Pacific), March 25, 26 and 31, call toll-free 877-721-7241; when prompted, enter access code 5998146#. Submit written comments by April 13 to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, attn: CRSO EIS, P.O. Box 2870, Portland, OR 97208-2870.