WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Tuesday promised to work with leaders in the Northwest, including a prominent Republican, to protect salmon in the Columbia River Basin.
But two Washington state Republicans lambasted the president after he confused the Columbia and Colorado rivers while wading into the region’s long-running salmon dispute.
Speaking at a conservation summit at the Interior Department, Biden said he was committed to working with tribal leaders, Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson and Washington’s Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, “to bring healthy and abundant salmon runs back to the Colorado River system.”
In an official transcript of the remarks, the White House press office confirmed that Biden meant to refer to the Columbia River Basin. That includes the Snake River, the subject of a long-running controversy over breaching dams to restore the river’s natural flow in hopes of boosting salmon and steelhead populations.
Republican Reps. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane were quick to criticize Biden, both for the river mix-up and for the content of his remarks.
“President Biden’s inability to even get the name of the river system that powers, waters, and feeds our communities right proves he is the last person who should be making decisions that impact the men and women of Central Washington and the entire Pacific Northwest,” Newhouse said in a statement. “President Biden is perpetuating a dangerous, false narrative with the help of Senators Murray and Cantwell and Representative Simpson and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
While fisheries experts generally agree the dams affect salmon migration by slowing the river’s flow and creating obstacles, dam-breaching opponents contend investments in hatcheries and fish-passage technology are sufficient to prevent the extinction of Snake River salmon. But the Nez Perce and other Northwest tribes – who were guaranteed fishing rights in exchange for most of their lands in an 1855 treaty – say removing the earthen portion of the dams is the surest way to save the fish.
In March 2022, the White House pledged to work with stakeholders in the Northwest to find “a path forward” for Columbia Basin salmon. But Biden has not taken a public stance on dam breaching. Nor have Cantwell and Murray, who have instead used their roles as the heads of powerful committees to secure funding for other salmon conservation efforts. Last year, Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee released a report about salmon that considered the future of the dams. The report advised against breaching the dams, at least in the short term, in part, because of the clean energy they provide.
“Importantly, the Pacific Northwest cannot delay its decarbonization goals as we confront the climate crisis,” Murray said in a prepared statement when the report was released. “Key infrastructure and energy investments must be in place before we can seriously consider breach. Still, specific salmon runs are struggling, and breach is an important option that could help save the salmon – and we cannot under any circumstances allow the extinction of salmon to come to pass.”
Some Republicans have accused the senators and Inslee of plotting against the dams.
“I’ve said time and time again that I share the goal of restoring healthy salmon runs to the entire Columbia River System,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “This requires a transparent process and honest conversation, yet all we’ve gotten from the Biden administration are political appointees running closed-door meetings and pushing an agenda that is not based on science or results.”
Biden’s mention of Simpson – who added fuel to the long-simmering fight when he proposed breaching the four Lower Snake River dams as part of a broader plan to remake the region’s economy and save salmon – suggested to McMorris Rodgers that the White House is siding with dam-breaching advocates.
“What the president may not realize is that he tipped his hand today and pulled back the curtain on these ‘confidential’ conversations,” the Spokane Republican said. “He may as well have just said he supports dam breaching.”