Comment: Saving salmon requires a break from status quo

Making up for the loss of the lower Snake River dams will be costly. Leaving them is costlier still.

By Erin Farris-Olsen / For The Herald

Back in April, I was fishing with my parents and I landed one of three spring chinook salmon that came home with us that afternoon. Catching these fish is a joy so many of us in the Pacific Northwest share and revel in, building memories with our kids, families, and friends across the generations.

Yet after several seasons coming home empty handed, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will this be the last year we’ll be bringing home spring chinook? The sights and smells of examining grandpa’s weekly catch, the supply of smoked salmon he sent with me to college, at baby showers, holidays, and weddings for many years flash through my mind. At what point will this be just a memory? I know I’m not alone.

Since the lower Snake River dams in Washington state were completed in 1975, salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin have plummeted by 90 percent and today they are on the verge of disappearing forever. Salmon have been going extinct for my entire life and I am hungry to reverse the trend in my generation.

Thankfully, salmon extinction is a crisis that Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray have committed to addressing. Recently, they published a promising draft report. It details how we build a future where infrastructure and salmon — and the Tribes, communities and wildlife that depend on them — are not in conflict. In short, we can breach the lower Snake River dams while meeting the region’s future energy and agriculture needs and save salmon from extinction. We don’t have to choose between salmon and services. We can have both.

Headlines have called attention to the cost of breaching the dams and replacing the services they provide. The high-end estimate lands at approximately $27 billion. But let’s look at what has been spent to date. Adjusted for inflation to 2022 dollars, the total spent on fish and wildlife since 1980 is just under $24 billion. That amount rises each year that we delay. If we are honest with ourselves, these salmon recovery measures have added up to little more than lowest-common-denominator compromises and half-measures that have wasted taxpayer and ratepayer dollars and achieved nothing.

If we continue to spend on these aging, 50-year-old dams, the price tag continues to swell. The rising costs of dam maintenance, turbine replacement and upkeep are estimated to be $1 billion annually. Once we tack on future fish mitigation measures, evermore challenging and pricey with climate change, maintaining the current system is fiscally irresponsible.

When the question of energy replacement arises, we cannot allow ourselves to be misled: These four dams produce a relatively small amount of energy, approximately 4 percent for the region, and investments in new, clean resources will reduce the risk of blackouts while providing the best chance for fish recovery.

The utilities consulting firm Energy Strategies concluded that a portfolio of new energy resources— wind, solar, demand response, energy efficiency, and battery storage — would provide more flexibility, reliability and value than the lower Snake River dams. The takeaway is clear: Clean energy and wildlife can coexist.

The cost of inaction is further multiplied in economic losses. Without abundant salmon and steelhead runs, businesses and fishing communities, where opportunities may otherwise be limited, are hurting. These fish are directly tied to our economic well-being. In Washington state, more than 940,000 people fish, spending $1.5 billion and supporting 15,000 jobs. If we keep the dams in place and don’t make comprehensive investments, our problems compound quickly: We’ll have no salmon, no new infrastructure, broken our federal treaty obligation to Tribal Nations, and destroyed the way of life for all people in the Pacific Northwest. Investing in removing the dams and replacing the services they provide is clearly the smartest investment we can make going forward.

The Murray-Inslee report underscores a simple truth: Change is inevitable. We know the time is now. We must start planning how we strengthen the region once we restore the lower Snake River.

The report also reaffirms that a stronger future in the Northwest must go beyond a price tag. It must also be centered on justice. We can no longer ignore that the combined negative impacts of the lower Snake River dams have disproportionately burdened Northwest Tribes.

The report proves it is both feasible and fiscally responsible to improve our infrastructure and save salmon. It provides us with a roadmap to change direction toward a system that benefits all of us, rather than just a few.

A historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity is within reach. We can only afford one option: To seize it.

Erin Farris-Olsen is the Northern Rockies, Prairies, and Pacific regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation.

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