McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse act days after Biden commits to bolstering salmon
By Eric Barker Of the Tribune
March 24, 2023
Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her colleague Rep. Dan Newhouse, both of Washington, introduced legislation Thursday to protect the four lower Snake River dams.
The move comes just a few days after President Biden said he is committed to working with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho and Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, to save Columbia and Snake river salmon. Biden did not say he supports dam breaching and of the politicians he mentioned, only Simpson has publicly backed the idea.
McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse are both Republicans who represent districts that are home to one or more of the four dams.
“I am growing increasingly concerned about President Biden’s openness to breaching our dams,” said McMorris Rodgers in a news release. “From his administration’s recommendation to rip them out — without any scientific evidence to back it up — to his desire to work with anti-dam advocates, it’s clear our dams are in danger.”
The Biden administration has not recommended breaching the dams. But last year, NOAA Fisheries, the agency in charge of protecting threatened and endangered salmon, released a draft report saying wild Snake River salmon cannot be recovered to healthy and harvestable levels without breaching. The “healthy and harvestable” standard is a much higher threshold than recovering the fish to the point they can be removed from federal protection.
For example, delisting criteria call for consistent returns of 33,500 wild Snake River spring and summer chinook to their spawning grounds. The healthy and harvestable level, set by the NOAA-convened Columbia River Partnership Task Force, is about 98,000 wild spring and summer chinook returning to the Snake River. Historic returns were exponentially higher.
Two years ago, Simpson, who represents Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, released a $33.5 billion plan that would breach the dams and invest in affected communities and industries across the Northwest. Newhouse said Simpson and others have not been honest about the dams and their effect on migrating salmon and steelhead.
“The Four lower Snake River Dams are integral to flood control, navigation, irrigation, agriculture, and recreation in central Washington and throughout the Pacific Northwest — to put it simply, we cannot afford to lose them,” he said in a news release. “Yet President Biden, Governor Inslee, Senator Murray, and Representative Simpson have been misleading the American people with unscientific information in order to breach these dams, putting our communities at risk.”
Wild Snake River salmon and steelhead have been under the protection of the Endangered Species Act since the late 1990s. During that time, their numbers have gone up and down from year to year but they remain far from recovery. In 2021, the Nez Perce Tribe released an analysis showing 42% of wild spring chinook populations and 19% of wild steelhead populations in the Snake River basin have reached the quasi-extinction threshold — an analytical tool used by the federal government to assess the risk. The threshold is tripped when a population of fish has 50 or fewer spawners return to natal streams for four consecutive years.
Last year, about 200 wild spring chinook returned to the Tucannon River in the state’s southeastern corner and in McMorris Rodgers’ district. This year, the state is expecting only about 20 wild fish. An expected low return of spring chinook to the entire Snake River basin this year is expected to constrain fishing for hatchery spring chinook in the Columbia River.
The dams turn the river from a free-flowing stream into a series of slackwater reservoirs. While they have fish ladders and other facilities allowing salmon to pass up and downstream, studies have shown the dams delay juvenile fish during their migration to the ocean, expose them to predation from other fish and birds and induce stress and injury that lead to lower survival.
Removing the dams would reduce mortality of juvenile and adult fish and according to some studies boost returns by four-fold.
But it would come at a steep price — the loss of about 900 average megawatts of hydroelectric power that would complicate the region’s effort to convert fully to carbon-free power. It would also end some irrigation near the Tri-Cities in Washington and stop tug-and-barge transportation between Lewiston and downriver ports — making it harder for farmers to get their crops to overseas markets.
Simpson’s dam breaching concept acknowledges the benefits provided by the dams and seeks to mitigate the losses through investments in infrastructure and economic development. He shot back at his fellow Republicans via a statement and called their legislation a “Hail Mary attempt.”
“If the choice is between flushing Idaho’s upper Snake River water downstream for four dams in Washington state, I choose keeping Idaho water for Idahoans,” he said. “Each year eastern Idaho sends almost a half million acre feet of irrigation water downstream for salmon recovery — that is water that is not being used to recharge our aquifer, not being used for irrigation, and our salmon are on the verge of extinction.”
The bill, known as the Northwest Energy Security Act, which was also introduced as a Senate bill by Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, would essentially codify the federal government’s 2020 Supplemental Biological Opinion on operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System. That document acknowledged that breaching would be beneficial to salmon and steelhead but concluded lesser actions, like spilling water at the dams, improving inland habitat and other reforms, would be sufficient to prevent extinction of Snake River sockeye, spring and fall chinook and steelhead.
The Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon and a coalition of fishing and environmental groups sued the federal government over that plan, charging it fails to meet the level of protection required by the Endangered Species Act. That lawsuit was put on hold more than a year ago, when the parties agreed to enter mediation. They have until this summer to reach an agreement.
Shannon Wheeler, vice-chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said the tribe is ready to work with anyone to not only save salmon but also build a stronger future for the region.
“We have come to the table and want to talk about what the energy system looks like, what the transportation system looks and what we want the Pacific Northwest to look like. We want it to grow and prosper and for salmon to grow and prosper,” he said. “Things like this don’t give (salmon) recovery much of a chance.”