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Save Our Wild Salmon

kate.brown.govBy Kate Brown, Samuel N. Penney, and Liz Hamilton
Oct. 10, 2021

Brown is governor of Oregon. Penney is chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. Hamilton is executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Together, we represent the leadership of the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. For years, we have worked alongside the other stakeholders of the Columbia Basin to find a path forward that ensures the long-term economic and ecological health of our region.

So, we were surprised to see the Public Power Council’s Sept. 26 op-ed complaining about a lack of dialogue over the governor’s support for breaching the four dams of the Lower Snake River (“Governor’s anti-dam campaign ignores risks to power grid”). The group has been invited to and attended numerous meetings and forums over the years, including Columbia Basin Collaborative meetings, where it has been welcome to participate in working groups. We’ve heard the perspectives of the Public Power Council and shared ours ­– which includes a comprehensive solution that charts a stronger, brighter future for the Northwest.

The ecological vibrance of the Columbia and Snake Rivers is intertwined with the economic prosperity of the region. For generations, we have harnessed our rivers and developed our watersheds, seeking a balance between sustainability and prosperity. What is clear today is that the status quo in the Columbia Basin is not working. Salmon and steelhead stocks continue to decline, with several now on the brink of extinction. We must also continually reevaluate our evolving clean energy portfolio to reflect emerging technologies. It is not an either-or choice: we can have a future with abundant and harvestable salmon and reliable clean energy.

Salmon and steelhead are keystone species critical to the region’s ecosystem and economy, as well as subsistence and cultural health for tribal peoples who have fished the rivers since time immemorial. Abundant salmon and steelhead populations can coexist with a robust, growing regional economy that includes affordable and renewable power, water for agriculture, transportation of goods and jobs in the fishing industry, while being respectful of tribal culture, history and treaty rights.

Decades of development, including the dams and reservoirs placed between critical inland nursery areas and ocean feeding grounds, has had devastating impacts on wild salmon and steelhead. For nearly 30 years, several species have remained listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Now, the climate crisis is compounding those impacts through warmer waters, lower river flows and deteriorating ocean conditions. Through it all, the federal agencies responsible for operating dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have continuously failed to meet the minimum standards required by the Endangered Species Act.

This year, we find ourselves at a critical juncture––if we do not take action before juvenile salmon begin their spring migration, those stocks may never recover. Extinction is irreversible. We must act now.

Restoration of the Snake River through the removal of the earthen portion of the lower four dams is a necessary part of any long-term solution. Just as clear is that significant resources will be necessary to invest in clean energy sources to replace the energy production the dams provide. That’s one of the reasons Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson called for $33 billion in economic investment as part of his proposal, released earlier this year, for resolving the Columbia Basin conflict. By striking the right balance, we can ensure robust and harvestable fish runs, a growing economy built on investments in clean energy, and sustainable agricultural, commercial, and recreational industries.

We would like to correct some misperceptions. First, litigation was not a path that Gov. Brown chose alone, nor was it our preferred option. Unfortunately, the federal government left us no other recourse. Rules enacted by the previous administration––and the resulting 15-year federal plan for operating the Columbia and Snake River dams––are inconsistent with the Endangered Species Act and federal laws, and fall far short of protecting our fish runs.

Second, our recent proposals do not conflict with the recent “flex spill agreement,” which was an interim step while the latest operations plan was completed. The flex spill agreement, by its express terms, terminated when the federal government issued the flawed operations plan.

Finally, no one disputes that the power generation of the Snake River dams must be replaced. That challenge is far from insurmountable––in fact, the dams provide a relatively small, though stable, amount of power for the region. The region as a whole is working to address power generating needs, reliability and greater integration of renewables. As clean regional energy supplies expand, combined with investments in storage and energy efficiency, future dam removal becomes a viable option.

None of this is simple or easy. We will need all our partners to make it happen, including the Public Power Council. But we cannot wait another year. If salmon and steelhead disappear from the region, the ecological and economic impacts can never be undone. That is what is at stake. Let’s work together on a comprehensive solution and get this done.

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