By Dan McDonald
Salmon and steelhead swim right through the heart of our region’s special way of life. These emblematic fish are an essential part of our Northwest culture, and big contributors to the economy as well. In the Columbia Basin more than anywhere else, salmon means business. Sport fishing fuels a bustling outdoor recreation and tourism trade that supports local shops, guiding services, hotels, restaurants, manufacturing and more. Located in Granger, Washington, Yakima Bait/Worden’s Lures has been manufacturing fishing tackle since 1934. We employ 45 employees in our rural community.
But the world-renowned salmon and steelhead runs our company was built upon are in serious trouble. Four federal dams built on the lower Snake River back in the ‘60s and ‘70s have stilled and warmed its waters, and today block productive access for these highly endangered fish to the largest, best cold-water habitat remaining in the Columbia Basin watershed.
Restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River – and replacing the dams’ services with alternatives – is critical for protecting its fish from extinction. It also represents our region’s greatest opportunity to safeguard Washington’s recreational fishing industry that supports almost 15,000 jobs and an annual economic output of $2.3 billion every year. This kind of comprehensive approach – removing these dams and replacing their services – also represents the greatest economic development opportunity our region has seen in decades. With bi-partisan leadership in the Northwest and an administration in Washington D.C. that’s committed to expanding clean energy resources and modernizing other critical infrastructure, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity right now to fix some big problems and modernize aging infrastructure.
Rather than clinging to costly dam infrastructure that’s driving salmon and steelhead to extinction, we can work together to replace the dams’ modest energy services with alternatives that are clean, affordable and more reliable than the system today. The four dams on the lower Snake River provide just 4% of our region’s energy needs. And the rising water temperatures in the reservoirs created by the dams are frequently lethal to endangered salmon and steelhead.
At the heart of this conversation must be a bedrock commitment that ensures no community is left behind. Restoring a healthy, cool and more resilient lower Snake River requires investments to replace the dams’ navigation and irrigation infrastructure. Agricultural production and jobs – like healthy salmon runs and an affordable energy supply – are critical to our region. Investments to replace the barging capacity with upgrades and increased rail capacity will allow grain to move to market efficiently and affordably without adding trucks on the highway or expanding our carbon footprint. The same holds true for irrigation. With planning and investment, we will ensure continued water availability to the approximately 53,000 acres of farmland that currently depend on waters drawn from the lower Snake River each year. These things are vital to the fabric of our communities here in eastern Washington.
Fortunately, Governor Inslee and our state legislature recognized the urgency and the opportunity, and they stepped up to help meet this challenge during this year’s legislative session. $7.5 million was set aside in the 2023-25 Washington State budget to develop a transition plan for the energy, transportation, and irrigation services provided by these dams. With the historic levels of funding now available in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, emissions-free energy, transportation and irrigation infrastructure updates in the Columbia River Basin are achievable – and will readily translate to jobs.
The momentum, started by Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, of Idaho, for advancing comprehensive solutions that meet the urgent needs of both salmon and our communities is growing.
Emergency fishing closures up and down the coast – and right here in our backyard – reflect this tragic reality: unless we act, salmon are running out of time. Recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead to harvestable abundance is going to take bold, urgent action. While leadership on this issue can be hard, the way forward is clear. The services that the dams provide can be replaced and modernized. Salmon cannot.
Dan McDonald is the president and board chairman of the Yakima Bait Company, based in Granger, Washington. He works with his daughter; she represents the fifth generation family connection to the company.