By Quinn Read and Sophia Ressler
When the four dams on the lower Snake River were constructed more than 50 years ago, few could foresee the extent of the harm they would cause – not only to Snake River salmon but to orcas and so many other species throughout the vast Columbia River Basin.
Now the fate of the Southern Resident orcas in the Salish Sea is tied to the fate of these dams. Every species of Snake River salmon is teetering at the brink of extinction, including the chinook salmon the orcas depend upon for survival.
The science is clear: Removing the Snake River dams is one of the most important recovery actions needed to save salmon and Southern Resident orcas. For decades environmental organizations have gone to court, using the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, to keep these iconic species of the Pacific Northwest from going extinct, hoping to secure a better and more permanent solution.
A few months ago Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, proposed a plan to breach these four dams. In doing so he became the first member of Congress to offer a solution for the Snake River.
Unfortunately, his proposal is a Trojan horse. It would sacrifice clean water, human health, environmental justice and the fate of other endangered species across the Columbia River Basin in a cynical trade to breach these four dams.
Under his proposal, Simpson would exempt all agriculture from every requirement under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act for 25 years. It would give a blanket extension to every other dam in the Basin for 35 years – effectively ending any real environmental accountability for the operations of those dams. And it would funnel $35 billion mainly to special interests in the region, rather than the tribes and other affected communities that should be prioritized.
Simpson has made no effort to hide his goal to bolster big agribusiness by gutting environmental laws and abolishing judicial review. He did it when he delisted wolves in Idaho and Montana, and he wants to do it again now. But his dam-removal proposal is far more egregious. If approved, imperiled species across the region would lose critical protections under the Endangered Species Act. Agribusiness will get a huge influx of taxpayer dollars to increase activities that pollute our waters. At the same time, communities across the Columbia River Basin would lose the protection of bedrock environmental laws and would have no recourse when their water is polluted.
Two months after it was first proposed, Simpson’s proposal remains the only one on the table. Decision-makers in Washington and Oregon have said little publicly on the matter, but behind closed doors, it’s a different story.
The four lower Snake River dams have got to go. And we finally have a federal administration committed to modernizing our nation’s infrastructure. We must invest in the communities that will be harmed by the removal of the dams. But we don’t have to trade clean water and vibrant wildlife populations throughout the Columbia River Basin in order for the dams to come down. Shortsightedness got us into this mess, and it won’t get us out.
Simpson has capitalized on the political vacuum in Washington and Oregon and offered the region its most anti-environmental trade in modern history. The belief that there is no other way is a failure of imagination and leadership.
It is time for Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, to step up and chart a better path forward. Simpson’s plan can’t be the only one up for consideration and debate. We need a solution that promotes environmental justice, fully supports the Tribes and preserves our core environmental laws for future generations.
Quinn Read is Oregon policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity; Sophia Ressler is the Washington wildlife attorney at the Center.
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