Get Informed, Stay Inspired

Environmentalists and Native American Tribes Argue That Salmon Agreement Maps Out a Plan for Removing Dams
Science & Health

Environmentalists and Native American Tribes Argue That Salmon Agreement Maps Out a Plan for Removing Dams

The United States government announced on Thursday its intention to allocate over $1 billion towards the restoration of dwindling salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. This funding will also assist in finding alternatives to compensate for the hydropower, transportation, and other advantages that come from the presence of four contentious dams on the Snake River, if Congress decides to remove them.

The Biden administration did not explicitly demand the removal of the dams to protect the fish, but local tribes and environmentalists who have been advocating for their removal see this agreement as a plan for dismantling them. The agreement was submitted to the U.S. District Court in Oregon and puts a hold on the ongoing legal battle regarding the federal management of the dams, marking a major milestone in the potential breaching of the dams.

Senior White House adviser John Podesta stated in a written declaration that the current agreement signifies a fresh course for the Pacific Northwest. The Biden-Harris administration, along with state and tribal governments, have come to a mutual understanding to collaborate in safeguarding salmon and other indigenous fish species, upholding our commitments to tribal nations, and acknowledging the significant contributions of the Columbia River system to the economy of the Pacific Northwest.

The Columbia River Basin, which is about the same size as Texas, used to be considered the top salmon-producing river system in the world. It was home to at least 16 different types of salmon and steelhead.

Currently, four species have become extinct and seven are classified as endangered according to the Endangered Species Act. Another well-known but at-risk species in the Northwest, a group of killer whales, relies on salmon for survival.

Decline attributed to dams.

Federal fisheries scientists have determined that the decline of salmon is primarily due to dams, particularly those on the Snake River in eastern Washington. To restore the population, they suggest breaching these dams, which would allow the fish to reach a vast amount of unspoiled habitat and breeding areas in Idaho.

Over twenty years ago, conservation organizations filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an attempt to protect the fish. They have contended that the ongoing use of the dams infringes upon the Endangered Species Act and agreements made in the mid-1800s guaranteeing the indigenous tribes’ access to fishing.

Last month, Republican members of Congress who are against breaching the dams leaked a copy of the draft agreement.

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington, expressed deep reservations about the implications of this agreement for our region’s future. In a statement sent via email on Thursday, she stated that it puts at risk the essential energy, irrigation, and navigation benefits that sustain our entire way of life. Additionally, she criticized the fact that Congress was not consulted in making these commitments on their behalf.

Details of agreement

The US government has agreed to construct sufficient clean energy facilities in the Pacific Northwest to compensate for the hydropower produced by the dams, namely the Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite dams.

A deal has been reached that involves a resolution about the management of dams. This involves releasing more water during certain seasons to aid in the survival of certain types of salmon, like spring and summer Chinook. However, it also means reducing the amount of water released in late summer, which could have negative effects on fall Chinook. The law firm Earthjustice, who is representing environmental, fishing, and renewable energy organizations in the legal case, has expressed concerns about this potential harm.

The Bonneville Power Administration, responsible for managing the dams, has committed to investing $300 million over the course of 10 years to enhance the populations of native fish and improve their habitats in the Columbia River Basin. This agreement is expected to result in a modest 0.7% increase in rates. The majority of the funds will be allocated towards upgrading and operating hatcheries, while the remaining portion will be shared among the “six sovereigns” involved: Oregon, Washington, and four tribes – Yakama Nation, Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs.

The White House announced that in addition to other funding for fish restoration, the federal government will allocate over $1 billion in the next ten years.

The United States will also fund research on finding alternative methods for transportation, irrigation, and recreation if the dams were to be removed. The dams have transformed Lewiston, Idaho into the furthest inland seaport on the West Coast, and local farmers heavily rely on barges to transport their crops, although rail is also an option.

Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, stated that the agreement provides a plan for reaching a breach. He also emphasized the importance of replacing and improving the Pacific Northwest in order to fulfill treaty obligations.

The agreement has faced opposition from organizations such as Northwest RiverPartners, the Public Power Council, and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

On Thursday, Northwest RiverPartners released a statement saying that this agreement will hinder our progress towards clean energy and lead to higher electricity costs for customers in the region. They also expressed concern about the impact on salmon, which NOAA scientists have identified as being threatened by the warming and acidifying ocean.

It is increasingly acknowledged that the negative impact of dams on fish is more significant than their benefits. However, only a small number of legislators in the area have embraced this concept. Dams on the Elwha River in Washington state, as well as the Klamath River on the Oregon-California border, have either been removed or are currently being removed.

In 2021, Idaho’s Republican Representative Mike Simpson suggested a plan to eliminate the earthen berms surrounding the four Lower Snake River dams, allowing the river to flow freely. This proposal also includes a budget of $33 billion to compensate for the benefits provided by the dams.

In a report released last year, Democratic Washington Governor Jay Inslee and U.S. Senator Patty Murray stated that the carbon-free electricity generated by the dams must be replaced before they are breached. During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Inslee did not endorse breaching the dams but suggested that finding a way to replace their benefits would help Congress make a more informed decision.

According to him, this agreement does not guarantee anything, but it significantly increases the chances of us obtaining the necessary information to make a decision.

In October, Biden instructed governmental organizations to utilize all possible means to revive the plentiful migration of salmon in the Columbia River Basin. However, the memo did not explicitly call for the elimination of the dams.

Donella Miller, the fisheries science manager at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, expressed concern about placing the burden of meeting the energy demands of the Pacific Northwest on salmon. She believes that prioritizing the well-being of the salmon ultimately benefits the environment, which in turn benefits the people.