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Save Our Wild Salmon

Sides in salmon and steelhead issue ask judge for more time to hammer out a solution

Sep 1, 2023
By Eric Barker Of the Tribune

Salmon migrating

Settlement talks that include breaching one or more Snake River dams as a possible action to recover threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead might be extended.

Parties to a decades-old lawsuit challenging operation of federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers over their detrimental effect on wild salmon and steelhead asked Thursday for more time to hammer out a solution.

The legal timeout began in 2021 when the Biden administration agreed to engage in mediated talks with the Nez Perce and other Native American tribes, Oregon and fishing and environmental groups. The stay, which was set to expire at the end of the day, halted proceedings in the latest round of the lawsuit in which the plaintiffs challenged the federal government’s 2020 plan that seeks to balance dam operations with needs of the fish. Courts have declared several earlier versions of the plan to be illegal.

If Judge Michael Simon grants the request, the talks seeking a “durable long-term strategy to restore salmon and other native fish populations to healthy and abundant levels” would continue for another 60 days.

“Salmon are in crisis, and we owe it to them to focus on durable solutions — including restoring the Lower Snake River — that work for the fish, honor our Treaty, and build a stronger, more resilient Northwest,” said Shannon Wheeler, chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe, in a news release.

Amanda Goodwin, an attorney from the environmental law firm EarthJustice, told the Tribune her clients continue to seek a solution to the decades-long decline of salmon and steelhead that has left some runs on the brink of extinction.

“I think it is true, remains true and has been true for quite some time that my clients are pushing for a comprehensive solution to restoring salmon in the Columbia River basin,” Goodwin said, “and we see restoring the Snake River as an absolutely critical component of that.”

Goodwin said her clients believe replacing the services the dams provide is an essential part of any plan to restore the river.

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, said the extension is likely bad news for public power customers and those in agriculture who depend on the dams to ship and irrigate their crops. Although those groups are intervenors in the case, Miller said they have been kept in the dark.

“The process has excluded us so far and it doesn’t bode well for what is going on,” he said. “I think it’s because the things they are negotiating will be bad for public power customers and agricultural interests.”

The federal government operates 14 dams on the two rivers. Dams on the Snake River have been shown to negatively affect survival rates for spring chinook, fall chinook, sockeye and steelhead, all of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. On the Columbia River in central Washington, Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams have no fish passage mechanisms and the fish runs above them have long been extinct.

But the hydropower system also provides a significant portion of the electricity consumed by residents of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and on the Snake River the dams make it possible to ship commodities like wheat between Lewiston and downriver ports.

The Nez Perce along with Oregon and fishing and environmental groups have advocated breaching the dams for more than two decades. That idea has gathered momentum of late. It started with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, releasing his plan two years ago that would spend $33.5 billion to breach the dams and compensate affected communities and industries. Last year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both Democrats, said breaching the dams is the surest way to recover the fish but that the action will not be feasible until there are replacements for services provided by the dams. Inslee’s administration is studying how those services might be replaced.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said for the first time the Snake River dams must be breached if wild salmon and steelhead that return to the river are to be restored to fishable numbers.

The request filed Thursday afternoon includes a footnote indicating the state of Idaho does not oppose the stay but thinks two months is not enough time. The document also indicates that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe are close to reaching an agreement with the administration. In previous court filings, the tribes have asked for an environmental impact statement looking at the impacts of Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams on salmon runs that once returned to the upper Columbia River and for a 2020 EIS to be thrown out for its failure to do so. The upper Columbia River tribes have begun efforts to restore salmon above the dams.

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