Senator and WA Governor Join Forces to Tackle Snake Dams

U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee answered advocates’ calls to energize the decades-long push to save our iconic salmon from extinction.

A barge travels on the Columbia River near Bingen, WA

Credit: Credit: Andrew Cushman

U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee answered advocates’ calls to energize the decades-long push to save our iconic salmon from extinction.  Inslee and Murray announced a joint effort to determine if there are “reasonable means for replacing the benefits provided by the Lower Snake River Dams, sufficient to support breach as part of a salmon recovery strategy.”

The Senator and Governor set an ambitious deadline less than a year away—282 days to be exact—to address the urgent salmon crisis. Salmon returns to the Snake River and its tributaries are at record lows and well below what’s needed for recovery. Climate change is only making things harder for the fish in the ocean and behind the dams’ hot reservoirs.

Inslee and Murray promised to act quickly to propose an action plan to replace the energy, irrigation and transportation services currently provided by the four lower Snake River dams. They committed to utilizing existing research and building bipartisan relationships to expedite the plan. U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) followed the announcement with their own statement of support. This is precisely the collaborative, brave leadership the region and our suffering salmon—and all the river communities and wildlife that depend on the keystone fish—so desperately need.

Free the Snake River Rally

Credit: Credit: Giulia Good Stefani/NRDC

At the same time, plaintiffs in court to save salmon from extinction agreed to pause their lawsuit to allow the U.S. senators and representatives, governors, Tribes, and federal agency leadership time to develop a comprehensive solution.  The Nez Perce Tribe, State of Oregon, and several environmental and clean energy NGOs have spent decades litigating the operation of the Columbia River Basin hydropower system (including the four lower Snake River dams).

Pausing the litigation is making a big bet.  NOAA’s own scientists agree that Snake River salmon are on course to go extinct by 2060, and U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon, who will decide the case, previously noted the “potentially catastrophic impact” on salmon and steelhead if nothing changes.

We are watching history in the making. It’s not just the Washington and Oregon governors, Nez Perce Tribe, three senators, and a group of environmental litigants who think so. The White House is showing signs that it’s turning federal attention to the Columbia River Basin as well.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland stated the lawsuit pause offers an “important opportunity to prioritize the resolution of more than 20 years of litigation and identify creative solutions that improve conditions for salmon for years to come.” Haaland recognized that it is “time to improve conditions for Tribes that have relied on these important species since time immemorial.”

Celilo Village, an ancient traditional fishing site, was submerged by The Dalles Dam in 1957

Credit: Credit: Josué Rivas for NRDC

For over fifty years, Tribes have led the work across the Columbia River Basin to remedy the catastrophic loss of salmon caused by the lower Snake River and other dams. Tribes petitioned to protect endangered salmon under the Endangered Species Act, and took the U.S. government to court to enforce the treaty-reserved “right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

Tribal activists organized and got arrested at fish-ins, and tribal fisheries and natural resources departments spearheaded anadromous fish studies, designed and operated hatcheries, reintroduced extirpated salmon populations, and restored habitat from the Columbia River estuary to the mountains. The Tribes have kept salmon on life support. But despite the Tribes’ herculean efforts, this year still marked the lowest return of steelhead to the Columbia River Basin in recorded history. The spring Chinook salmon runs—particularly important to endangered Southern Resident orcas—weren’t much better.

“We will continue to speak the truth about what the salmon need, and this is a moment of tribal unity in the Northwest and across the nation,” said Nez Perce Tribe Vice-Chairman, Shannon F. Wheeler in a recent statement. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing 57 tribal governments, passed a resolution this year in favor of removing the lower Snake River dams, in support of a comprehensive solution, and recognizing the early leadership of Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) on this issue. A few months later, the National Congress of American Indians elevated the tribal commitment by passing a resolution in favor of removing the dams in a powerful act of national solidarity.

Native American fishing scaffolds overlooking the Columbia River

Credit: Credit: Josué Rivas for NRDC

“Tribes, maybe more than anyone, understand the moment we face: a salmon crisis, a climate crisis, and a long-overdue opportunity to address 90 years of tribal injustice imposed by the Columbia power system on Indian people and their homelands,” said Vice-Chairman Wheeler.

Inslee, Murray and those engaged in their expedited planning conversation face a challenge in replacing the lower Snake River dams’ clean hydropower without making compromises in the fight to stop climate change. Here in the Northwest, 31 hydropower dams in the Federal Power System account for roughly a quarter of the Northwest’s annual energy generation. With commitments by Oregon and Washington to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2040 and 2045 respectively, many of these dams will absolutely play a critical role in the region’s energy future.

Our challenge is to appreciate the serious contribution of hydropower as the region does its part to fight climate change—perhaps more than we ever have before—while we reckon with the hard truths. Not all dams were constructed equitably or in ways that align with future salmon survival. The four lower Snake River dams were authorized in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1945 for the “purposes of providing slack water navigation and irrigation” and to address the needs of a relatively narrow set of river users, with hydropower as a tertiary benefit of the dams.

In 1948, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, a division of the Interior Department, reported to the U.S. Army Corps that “[t]he lower Snake River dams collectively present the greatest threat to the maintenance of the Columbia River salmon population of any project heretofore constructed or authorized in the basin.” They knew before they built them that there were “serious doubts” with the dams in place “as to the possibility of maintaining anadromous-fish populations in the Snake River watershed.”

Judge Marsh warned us 30 years ago that the Columbia Basin hydropower system “cries out for a major overhaul.” Decades of litigation and billions of dollars in salmon mitigation have not resolved this crisis. Federal agency leaders, federal judges, Tribal leaders, and a small army of dedicated clean energy and environmental advocates have watched their hair turn grey in the struggle to resolve this issue.  

Clearwater River, the largest tributary of the Snake River, near the Nez Perce Tribal Fish Hatchery

Credit: Credit: Author (Clearwater River, near Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery Complex)

Now Congress must seize this opportunity to guide action of the sort our federal courts are ill-equipped to shepherd.  To sustain our agricultural economy in Eastern Washington, federal leaders should convene Eastern Washington wheat farmers to guide strategic investments, work shoulder-to-shoulder to improve the current rail system, secure funds to efficiently move millions of bushels to the ocean for export, and improve irrigation for the upcoming generations. Our Northwest clean energy system transformation is already underway. If we are to restore the river, we must invest in additional energy storage, enhance system reliability, stem cost uncertainty, and update energy transmission to the rapidly growing Tri-Cities area of Pasco, Richland and Kennewick and beyond.

Restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River and replacing the dams’ valuable services while honoring our clean energy commitments: This is the most complex ecological, social justice, energy, transportation, and economic challenge our region has faced in a century. If we work together, we can achieve the largest dam removal and river restoration in history. It’s time to try.

The Northwest has been stuck in this litigation logjam of salmon v. dams for too long. We at NRDC are ready to work with the Northwest delegation, the governors, the Tribes, the federal agencies, utility leaders, and all the impacted stakeholders across the Columbia River Basin to modernize our agricultural economy, build a clean and secure energy future, and restore a free-flowing lower Snake River that will ensure abundance for generations to come.

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