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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest tribes, Washington and Oregon sign Columbia River salmon agreement at the White House

Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River is shown on Aug. 1, 2022. It’s one of four lower Snake River dams that environmentalists want a federal judge to remove to protect endangered sockeye salmon.  (Orion Donovan Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – At the White House on Friday, leaders from four Northwest tribes, along with the governors of Washington and Oregon, signed a major agreement intended to restore salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin.

The deal, announced in December, stops litigation over the federal hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake rivers for up to 10 years in exchange for $1 billion in federal funding for fish recovery efforts, tribal energy programs and to spill more water over the dams to improve survival rates for salmon and steelhead. While the deal doesn’t call for breaching the Lower Snake River dams, it could help pave the way for eventually replacing the services the four dams provide.

Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said that although there were times during the mediation process the parties “may have doubted this moment” would happen, they ultimately “chose partnership” instead of continuing the litigation.

“President Biden understands the Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest – for its culture, for its economy and for its people,” Mallory said, adding that the agreement “is charting a new and exciting path to restore the river, provide for clean energy and live up to our responsibilities and obligations to tribal nations.”

In treaties signed with the U.S. government in 1855, Northwest tribes were guaranteed the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed” places in exchange for giving up vast swaths of their land. In addition to Washington and Oregon, the deal was signed by the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes.

Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Council, thanked all the groups involved in the agreement who attended the signing ceremony, including Democratic Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington and Tina Kotek of Oregon.

“Let’s continue this work and let’s make these things happen for the future generations,” Wheeler said. “Not for us, but for them.”

Gerald Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, thanked the Biden administration “for the unprecedented level of federal commitment they have shown to saving our salmon and to upholding tribal treaty rights.”

The tribes and environmental groups say dam breaching is necessary to restore salmon, but they emphasize that it wouldn’t happen until the power, transportation and irrigation they provide are fully replaced.

“We can and must restore Columbia Basin salmon, and working together, we can and will do so in a way that ensures all our communities will have the energy and other resources they need for generations to come,” Lewis said.

Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, said in a statement that he was honored to attend the signing.

“This signing marks a milestone in the long-running fight for abundant salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia Rivers,” Hayes said. “The U.S. Government is making significant commitments to invest in salmon recovery and to replace and modernize the services provided by the lower Snake River dams, putting the region on a pathway toward their removal.”

That vision has provoked fierce opposition from opponents of dam removal, including Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside, who represent the land around the dams. Their fellow Republican, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho Falls, is the sole member of Congress who has called for breaching the Lower Snake River dams.