By Wendy Culverwell
December 14, 2023
The Biden Administration announced an agreement to pause a lawsuit over Columbia River salmon for up to 10 years and spells out steps for tearing down the four Lower Snake River dams.
The Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative was hailed as a “historic” step toward ending the status quo and making real progress on restoring dwindling salmon populations in the Northwest.
The agreement announced Thursday provides $1 billion in new federal funding to shore up fish habitat and calls for more research on what it will take to replace the benefits of the four hydropower dams should Congress move to breach them in the future.
The agreement was greeted by some as a welcome “roadmap” to tearing down the dams and by others as a betrayal that will only hurt the region’s future.
The administration announced the agreement between the so-called “six sovereigns” one day before Friday’s deadline for parties in a long-running federal dispute to mediate an agreement.
Terms were leaked last week, leading to widespread coverage and even a Congressional hearing.
The agreement was filed in U.S. District Court for Oregon. It stays the lawsuit that pressed to breach the four dams for five years, with a five-year extension possible.
It stops short of calling for the four dams to be breached. However, it spells out the need to create a plan to replace the energy, transportation, irrigation, recreation and other benefits they provide.
Earthjustice, which brought the case on behalf of tribal and other clients, called it a “roadmap” to removing the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, strung along the Snake River between the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington and Lewiston, Idaho.
The agreement provides new funding for hatcheries, fish passage and other projects and creates a new tribal energy program to pursue clean energy. It also spells out how water is spilled over dams to benefit fish while ensuring reliable energy production.
EXTINCTION NOT AN OPTION
Tribal leaders echoed the “roadmap” message in a press briefing organized by the White House.
The Thursday Zoom call also featured federal officials and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is about to start his final year in office.
Shannon Wheeler, chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, said dwindling stocks of salmon and other species must dictate the timeline. The agreement brings litigants together to build a better Northwest.
Salmon, steelhead, lamprey and orca will all be in a better place, he said.
Jonathan Smith, chair of Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs in Oregon, said human activity on the Columbia System deprived members of their 1855 treaty rights to fish in their usual and accustomed places.
“There have not been enough fish to feed our people and conduct our ceremonies,” he said. “Breaching the four Lower Snake River dams will help the fish.”
Gerald Lewis, chair of the Yakama Nation, said the agreement ensures future energy projects will respect tribal rights and puts dam removal on the table as soon as practicable.
Corinne Sams, trustee for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, noted that salmon stocks are dwindling.
“Extinction cannot be an option.”
BREACHING ‘OFF THE TABLE’
But a key intervenor in the case takes a different message from the commitment agreement.
It is inconceivable that Congress would act to breach the dams in the next five to 10 years, said Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.
Olsen said the irrigators’ group explicitly supports the agreement because it makes dam breaching less likely, not more.
“The CSRIA supports this action, because dam breaching is effectively ‘off the table’ for any conceivable future,” it said in a statement released in advance of the official announcement. “The centerpiece for the agreement is that the tribes are trading dam breaching for new power resource dollars.”
Inslee, speaking during the press briefing, said the agreement directs how the region will answer difficult questions posed by dam breaching.
Asked if the agreement makes dam breaching “inevitable,” he said: “I don’t think this agreement makes anything inevitable.”
Northwest River Partners said it was shut out of the mediation discussions, which it characterized as “secret.” “While the lack of transparency and fairness are egregious enough the settlement takes a challenging situation and makes it worse,” it said.
Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition called the commitment agreement an important step to restoring fish populations and honoring treaty obligations. It challenged Northwest leaders to “seize this historic opportunity, end the harmful status quo, and move toward a comprehensive plan and investments.”
Idaho Conservation League committed to ensuring the federal government carries out its commitments. “The initiative contains key actions, including breach of the four lower Snake River dams, that are essential not just for salmon recovery, but for unwinding a decades-long trail of broken promises,” it said in a statement attributed to Mitch Cutter, its salmon and steelhead associate.
National Wildlife Federation said the initiative sets a new course toward the ‘right side of history.” “(W)e have specific agreed upon actions that move the Northwest region one step closer to saving Columbia River salmon and steelhead runs,” it said in a statement attributed to Collin O’Mara, president and CEO.
Public Power Council said the agreement “steamrolls” the Northwest and sets the stage for higher power rates and reduced grid reliability. “The US Government started this process with a gathering of certain interests that predominantly supported a dam breaching agenda and has now fully shown its cards,” it said in a statement attributed to Scott Simms, CEO & executive director.
Trout Unlimited called the agreement a step toward salmon recovery and upholding treaty obligations. “We must urgently instead of standing idly by while our wild salmon slip into extinction.”