Four Pacific Northwest tribes and the White House announced Thursday that they have partnered to restore wild salmon habitats in the Columbia River Basin and “explore” the possibility of breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River, although the agreement ruled out any tangible action to breach the dams.
Named the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, the groups’ legal agreement was filed this week in Federal District Court in Oregon. The initiative outlines a 10-year commitment made by the U.S. Government; states of Oregon and Washington; and the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes. The Biden administration also promised to spend $1 billion of federal cash on fish habitats and clean energy in the Columbia River Basin.
Tribal leaders on Thursday spoke with federal and state officials in a virtual meeting. Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Shannon Wheeler said the Pacific Northwest and its local species – including salmon, steelhead, lamprey and orca – will be in a much better place after the agreement.
“We know exactly what the fish need,” Wheeler said. “This is a pathway to do what needs to be done on our way to breaching.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also spoke in support of the agreement at Thursday’s meeting, saying Washington has needs for clean energy sources and healthy fish.
“These fish could not wait for another 12 years of litigation to figure this out and get the flows they need for survival,” Inslee said.
The 92-page agreement outlines a plan to develop clean energy that could help replace power supplies if the U.S. Congress authorizes a breach of the Lower Snake dams.
“We must act now to invest in replacing the dams’ benefits in order to make breaching a viable policy action,” reads the agreement. “These investments can best ensure a future that includes healthy and abundant salmon and steelhead, reliable and affordable energy systems, a robust economy, and valuable ecosystem services throughout the Columbia River Basin.”
The Bonneville Power Administration is directed in the agreement to invest $300 million from federal coffers over the next 10 years to restore native fish habitats in the Columbia River Basin.
The agreement also requires the federal government to help fund studies of how the “transportation, irrigation and recreation services” provided by the Lower Snake River dams could be replaced, with the purpose of informing Congress about whether to authorize a dam breach.
A century ago, it took a juvenile Chinook salmon less than five days to swim the winding, 325-mile stretch of rivers from the Idaho Panhandle to the Pacific Ocean. Today it takes as long as one month, scientists say.
Chinook and steelhead populations must now navigate many barriers as they swim the waterways of the Columbia Basin, including the four Lower Snake River dams, east of that river’s confluence with the Columbia River in southwest Washington.
Even though some dams have fish ladders and passages, the way their monstrous slabs of concrete broke up river flow has altered ecosystems. Diminished currents mean fish must work harder to travel down the river, exposing them to elements and predators for longer and depleting their energy by the time they reach the Pacific Ocean.
The four Lower Snake dams have been the subject of a decades-long push by local Indigenous and environmental leaders, calling for the federal government to breach the dams and restore the rivers’ habitats. Pro-breaching advocates wonder if the Lower Snake River will see a fate like the Klamath River.
People opposed to breaching the dams argue other environmental factors – such as rising water acidity levels in the Pacific Ocean – are just as much at fault for hurting salmon as the dams. And public power officials argue Thursday’s agreement could raise rates for consumers.
Kurt Miller, executive director at the Northwest Public Power Association, was disappointed when he watched Thursday’s meeting, he said, because his organization wasn’t involved in negotiations about the partnership. He said the agreement was poorly written and could hurt 4 million power customers in the West.
“The hardest part of this is when we heard the press conference today, hearing Gov. Inslee say that there was essentially a broad consensus around this agreement,” Miller said in a phone interview. “That just absolutely isn’t true. I think any reasonable person would consider the utilities that depend on the hydropower system. … I get the sense that Governor Inslee didn’t actually read the agreement.”
Miller said the agreement was vaguely written.
“There’s so much in there that’s hard to decipher. It’s hard to decipher who pays. They just refuse to create clarity,” Miller said. “They said they want to have a long-term durable solution, but what they’ve really done is they’ve just introduced chaos into this region.”
A group of four Inland Northwest Republicans have expressed repeated opposition over discussion about potential breaching the Lower Snake River dams. Last week, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Eastern Washington, Dan Newhouse of Central Washington, Russ Fulcher of North Idaho and Cliff Bentz of Eastern Oregon wrote a letter expressing concern that a leaked draft of the agreement was susceptible to misinterpretation.
“As Members of Congress representing the Pacific Northwest and tasked with oversight of the Executive Branch,” the letter reads, “it is our duty to ensure any actions committed to as part of this agreement do not circumvent by any means the congressional authorization that would be required to execute certain proposed provisions, such as the removal of certain dams.”
McMorris Rodgers on Thursday said she had “serious concerns” about what the agreement means for the future of the region she represents.
“It jeopardizes the energy, irrigation, and navigation benefits that support our entire way of life, and it makes commitments on behalf of Congress without engaging us,” McMorris Rodgers wrote in a statement. “This is too significant of a decision to make without an open, honest, and transparent regional dialogue. I want to work together – Republicans and Democrats – to recover endangered salmon, but that’s only possible when all voices are heard and every perspective is given a seat at the table.”
Amanda Goodin, the Earthjustice senior attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the agreements, said the partnership marked a turning point in decades of litigation.
“Instead of attempting to defend yet another illegal dam operations plan in court, the Biden administration is setting a new course, following the science and the lead of the Tribes and States to begin to replace the services of the Lower Snake River dams so that they can be breached,” Goodin wrote.
Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. She previously told The Spokesman-Review that breaching the Lower Snake dams could hurt farmers’ trade relationships with customers around the world.
The Nez Perce spend around $22 million each year trying to preserve ocean-going species like salmon and steelhead.
The four Lower Snake dams were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. Together, the four dams generate enough hydroelectric power to support a grid big enough to power the entire population of Seattle. The dams also supply irrigation water and make it possible for barges to navigate the river.
Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report that found breaching the Lower Snake River dams could help boost salmon populations.