By Eric Barker Of the Tribune
Dec 14, 2023
The Biden administration announced today that it has reached an agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon and other plaintiffs challenging the operation of dams that harm wild salmon on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.
The deal expected to bring more than $1 billion in federal investments to help recover wild fish in the two rivers is not a settlement of the case. Rather, it puts the lawsuit on ice for five to 10 years.
“Today's agreement was not an easy one to reach for anyone here today, but it was and is a critical and historical step towards restoring the Columbia River Basin,” said John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, during an online news conference. “One that honors our obligations to tribal nations to protect salmon of other native fish as the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest and recognizes the important benefits the Columbia River system provides to communities and businesses throughout the region.”
In exchange for pausing their litigation, the Nez Perce and other tribes that have treaty fishing rights on the two rivers will receive financial and technical assistance developing methods for producing as much as 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy sources, reforms to the way the river and fish and wildlife programs are operated, and continuing financial support for fish restoration projects in the Columbia River Basin. The Biden administration has also pledged to fund dam removal studies.
Shannon Wheeler, chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, called the agreement a pathway to future dam removal.
“We know that salmon, steelhead, lamprey, orca, all of those species will be in a better place when this is completed,” he said.
The tribe has supported dam breaching since 1996 and believes it is necessary to recover Snake River salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act and for the federal government to live up to promises it made in the Treaty of 1855.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who participated in the news conference, didn’t commit his support for dam breaching but said this agreement will help answer important questions while advancing the development of clean energy.
“I don't think this agreement makes anything inevitable but it does make it much more likely we will have the information we need to make a good decision, and I don't know who would be against that,” he said.
Brenda Mallory, chairperson of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said dam operation changes in the agreement will deliver a net benefit for some fish while also benefiting power production.
Under the agreement, the tribes will be able to count the new energy development as replacement for hydroelectric power generated at the dams if a future Congress authorizes breaching. That would neutralize one powerful argument against dam breaching. The handful of Northwest politicians who have signaled some level of support for dam removal have insisted the power generation, irrigation and navigation services provided by the dams be replaced or mitigated prior to breaching.
In 2021, Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, proposed a $33 billion plan that would breach the dams and mitigate affected communities and industries. Last year, Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both Washington Democrats, said Snake River salmon must be saved but the services provided by the dams have to be replaced before breaching.
Wheeler said the tribes are betting the energy development and dam removal studies will pay future dividends.
“I think we as tribes are rolling the dice here, that all of these services are able to advance to a point to where congressional leaders can consider that and the administration can consider that and take the necessary actions to get to breach,” he said.
Along with conservation groups and Oregon, the tribes sued the federal government, claiming its 2020 plan to operate the dams in a way that doesn’t further harm wild salmon and steelhead violates the Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs have challenged successive dam operation plans over the past 25 years. In October 2021, the two sides agreed to pause the case and discuss a potential settlement. Today’s agreement is a product of those talks.
Under its terms, the Bonneville Power Administration will spend $300 million over the next decade to help restore imperiled salmon and steelhead runs. Of that, the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes, along with Oregon and Washington, will get $100 million. The remaining $200 million will be devoted to updating salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin.
Groups that represent public utilities that purchase power from BPA and those representing farmers who use the river to get their crops to downriver ports bitterly opposed the agreement. They contend it threatens agriculture in the region and will lead to substantially higher electricity costs.