Oct. 31, 2023
By Isabella Breda
Dam removal on the Lower Snake River is still on the table as talks continue over salmon survival and the operation of dams in the Columbia Basin.
After two years of settlement talks, the federal government, tribes, renewable-energy groups, conservationists and other parties will soon begin discussing a series of proposals for the river and the salmon that are struggling to survive there.
A stay on litigation in federal court over dam operations on the Snake and Columbia rivers was set to expire Tuesday, but parties agreed on an additional 45-day pause. If conversations go well, they could present a plan before the court and seek a yearslong stay. If it falls apart, the parties could return the fight to the courtroom.
The benefits of low-cost hydropower, irrigation and transportation on the Lower Snake River and the survival of salmon at risk of extinction are at stake.
Negotiations over future of Lower Snake River dams continues.
The Nez Perce, which was one of the tribes that brought the lawsuit, remain committed to recovering salmon in the tribe’s ancestral lands and waters. The tribe will continue to pursue breaching the four Lower Snake dams as the remedy for salmon recovery, Chairman Shannon Wheeler said in an interview Tuesday.
“We have to be here to speak for the salmon, and we’ll continue to advocate for the full recovery of salmon, steelhead and lamprey,” Wheeler said.
The government has lost five lawsuits over its operation of the dams, which a series of federal judges going back to 1994 have found imperil salmon, a violation of both the Endangered Species Act and treaties with tribal nations.
“You can get some things through litigation, but a comprehensive plan isn’t one of them,” said Amanda Goodin, senior attorney for Earthjustice. “I think that’s what’s really needed here: a plan that moves us forward, that recovers our salmon and honors commitments to try to address the needs of those communities that rely on the river throughout the basin.”
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which represents river users, including public power producers and industries, said he has felt shut out of the negotiating process. Miller said he’s worried his group’s feedback may not carry much weight.
This year, Washington state lawmakers earmarked more than $7 million in funding to draw up plans to replace the energy, transportation and irrigation services provided by the four Lower Snake dams. The Biden Administration this fall formalized support for healthy and abundant salmon runs in the Columbia Basin.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recommended removing the four Lower Snake dams as an “essential” step needed to rebuild the salmon and steelhead populations in the basin. The report explains that large-scale dam removal projects on the Elwha, Nooksack, Hood, Wind, White Salmon, Sandy and Rogue rivers “have all resulted in broader and quicker biological and physical benefits to local and regional riverscapes than expected.”
The basin has been developed with dams on the Columbia and Snake to create a powerhouse of hydropower, with the four Lower Snake dams on average serving about 800,000 homes with electricity. Irrigation on one of the pools of the Lower Snake also waters thousands of acres of food crops, and barge transportation through locks extends navigation from saltwater to Lewiston, Idaho.
The construction of dams on the Snake, beginning with Swan Falls in 1901 and continuing with the Hells Canyon Complex in the 1950s and the Lower Snake dams in the 1960s and 1970s, eliminated or severely degraded 530 miles or 80% of the historical habitat for Chinook in the river.