Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Justin Hayes: Cantwell is out of step on salmon, orcas and infrastructure

By Justin Hayes Idaho Conservation League

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is placing obstacles in front of efforts to restore salmon and orcas, honor commitments to Northwest Tribes, and invest in local communities. She is frankly out of step with what the people of the Northwest need now and for the future, and what the current administration is hoping to accomplish by investing in the nation’s infrastructure.

In the Northwest, salmon are spiraling toward extinction and, with them, the ecological fabric of the entire region is in jeopardy. Orca, dependent on salmon for food, are following in the wake of this dire crisis. Despite promises and Treaties, Northwest Tribes – who identify themselves as “Salmon People” – are having their culture, customs, health, and future ripped away from them even more. And throughout the Northwest the economic livelihood of many – outfitters, guides, small river towns, mom and pop shops – are going the way of the salmon.

The causes are many, but the federal dams on the Snake and Columbia River in Washington and Oregon and their hot, putrid, sluggish reservoirs play starring roles. Salmon need their free-flowing river back, and some of these dams need to be breached.

Many in the Northwest are surprised to learn that the federal agency, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), in charge of selling the electricity generated by these dams is also struggling financially. Old facilities (like these dams) need investment and upkeep and the costs associated with trying, but failing, to restore the salmon their dams are killing are ballooning. The inability to reliably compete on price in the West’s rapidly changing energy markets has the BPA in trouble, too.

Instead of seeking a comprehensive solution to this crisis, Cantwell wants $10 billion of increased federal borrowing authority for the BPA inserted into President Biden’s signature infrastructure package. This is just pumping money to prop up the failed status quo without consulting stakeholders or Tribes. Simply giving BPA a bigger line of credit to continue failed policies without any sort of plan to get us out of this mess will make things worse and divert the region’s attention away from real solutions. In a few years, when BPA burns through these billions we will be right here again in the same crisis, but with fewer salmon, fewer orca, more broken promises.

Cantwell does the region a disservice by advancing this piecemeal proposal and shows that she prioritizes propping up federal bureaucracy and the status quo over salmon, orca, social justice, and investing in local communities. As a former tech executive who benefited personally from innovative technology, she should understand the hopeful promise of change for the better. It’s a shame she won’t step in and work with others for a comprehensive solution that benefits all the people of the Northwest.

These issues are complicated – with high stakes for everyone in the Northwest. Minor tweaks to the status quo will not work. The scale of this problem calls out for a comprehensive solution. Thankfully, some of our elected officials are coming together, seeking to create a bold solution that would make everybody in the region whole.

But let’s be clear, we can’t just pump a bunch of money into propping up failed systems that got us in this mess. The status quo is not working. And when we think about the investments that are needed to make all communities whole, we must be honest and acknowledge that many in the Northwest are not whole now. None more so than the Tribes, the Salmon People.

Restoring salmon to true abundance, finally honoring the all too often broken Treaties and commitments to Tribes, supporting orcas, investing in the massive amount of salmon-friendly renewable energy necessary to tackle climate change, investing in transportation, agriculture, and the economic health of our communities are all intertwined. And that is why we need a comprehensive solution. True leaders are working to find durable solutions for all of us in the Northwest. It’s not easy and, estimated to cost $33.5 billion, it’s not going to be cheap.

President Biden seeks to advance his signature infrastructure investment package and bring about transformative change to address the causes of climate change, grow the economy, protect the environment, and right social injustices. Biden’s “Build Back Better” frame is a once in a generation opportunity to set America up for success by investing in bold solutions to tackle big problems. This invites a true comprehensive solution that restores salmon and benefits all the people of the Northwest, not just pumping money to support BPA’s already failing policies.

Justin Hayes is the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, the largest and oldest statewide conservation organization in Idaho with more than 40,000 supporters, including many in Washington and Oregon.