By Collin O’Mara and Alyssa Macy
Imagine Snake River without any salmon. That’s not hyperbole. It’s an inevitable reality without decisive action. A study from the Nez Perce Tribe documents that given current trends, nearly 80% of wild spring chinook populations in the Snake River Basin will be nearing extinction by 2025.
Our ability to recover salmon is getting harder every day. Since the construction of the four lower Snake River dams was completed in the 1970s, populations of wild Snake River salmon have nose-dived, dropping more than 90%. The dramatic impacts of transforming a wild river into a series of reservoirs were made clear in 2019, when only 17 sockeye salmon made it back to central Idaho to spawn. The four lower Snake River dams are blocking fish passage, reducing flows, and contributing to the heating of the entire Columbia River mainstem above a 68 degrees threshold that is often fatal to salmon. Add to this dangerously dry current conditions in the headwaters of the Snake River and the forecast of an extremely hot summer and we have a disastrous recipe for extinction.
The consequences of regional extinction are almost unfathomable from loss of subsistence for Tribes and local economic development to collapse of regional tourism and dead orcas starved of the protein salmon provide. It doesn’t have to end this way.
Recently, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) proposed a groundbreaking framework that will honor our obligations to Tribes, revitalize the agricultural sector, generate lower-cost clean energy, create good-paying jobs – and recover salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin. Rep. Simpson’s proposal builds on a years-long process, based on hundreds of stakeholder meetings and outreach to address the challenges facing salmon, Northwest Tribes, and communities throughout Idaho, Oregon and Washington. In the past few weeks, Rep. Earl Blumenaeur (D-Ore.) demonstrated incredible leadership in joining Rep. Simpson in this effort.
For decades, Northwest Tribes including the Nez Perce, Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have led the effort to restore salmon populations and protect their treaty rights. Just last week, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, comprised of 57 Tribes across the region, unanimously adopted a resolution supporting Rep. Simpson’s plan. We urge elected officials to truly listen to their clarion call for action.
Washington Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee have said more work is needed on Rep. Simpson’s framework and pledged to convene stakeholders and find consensus recommendations. We appreciate their commitment to restoring salmon runs, but we cannot afford years of delays or unscientific, lowest common denominator “solutions” that won’t prevent extinction. We’ve already spent tens of billions on such failed half-measures and wasted years on processes that lead nowhere – all while salmon populations plummet. We need Senator Murray and Governor Inslee to convene stakeholders and secure funding starting right now. We don’t have a moment to lose.
The question shouldn’t be whether to breach the four lower Snake River dams – the science is crystal clear that we cannot prevent salmon extinctions if we don’t – but rather, what investments do we need to make to ensure that everyone is made whole and that there’s a robust future for agriculture, shipping, ports and stronger local economies powered by low-cost clean energy?
As Congress debates a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure, there’s an opportunity right now to secure the funding that we will ultimately need to support all existing industries and strengthen local economies, as we restore salmon populations. We can do this now, while we’re working through the exact details of how best to meet the needs of affected communities, bolster our economic competitiveness, and advance the largest salmon and river restoration effort in U.S. history. The Washington delegation’s support is critical to this effort to secure upfront funding now, before Congress predictably reverts to fiscal austerity or divided government, or a court decision forces action without funding.
Let there be no doubt, perpetuating the status quo is a death sentence for Columbia River salmon, people and our ways of life. Inaction is the ally of extinction. The clock is ticking.
Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Alyssa Macy is CEO of the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.
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