Comment: Sen. Cantwell should join effort to retire Snake dams

Her knowledge and influence are key as replacements are sought for what the Lower Snake dams provide.

By Miles Johnson / For The Herald

Leaders tackle tough problems. If Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., wants to be recognized for her leadership, she should help solve one of the toughest and most urgent environmental and social problems in the Northwest: removing the Lower Snake River dams and replacing the services they provide.

Un-damming the Lower Snake River in Washington state is necessary for abundant salmon runs, robust fisheries, and Tribal justice. Many Northwest officials, and the Biden administration, have finally acknowledged this challenging truth and begun working to replace the dams’ services. Cantwell has not.

For decades, Northwest politicians refused to even discuss un-damming the Lower Snake River. That era is over, thanks to courageous leaders like Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and many others. Cantwell should join them in leading the Northwest through the challenging but important work of replacing the Lower Snake River dams’ services and restoring abundant salmon. She should make clear that she disagrees with Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who peddle half-truths about the Lower Snake River dams and seem content to watch Snake River salmon and Southern Resident orcas slide into extinction.

On March 21, 2023, President Biden publicly asked Cantwell — by name — for her help tackling this important issue. It’s easy to see why: The hydropower and shipping industries’ refusal to discuss solutions is hindering Snake River restoration. Cantwell can help break this impasse with her credibility in Eastern Washington, expertise on infrastructure and her influence in Congress. She could bring to the table industries that are nervous about changing the status quo and mistrustful of the people promoting that change. She could assure electric utilities and grain growers that investments to keep business thriving will actually occur, and are not just convenient talking points for environmentalists. Cantwell has an important role; the region, and now the president, are asking for her leadership.

Cantwell can, rightfully, point to opposing the Pebble Mine in Alaska and funding culvert replacement as proof of her strong support for salmon and fishing communities. These achievements are unquestionably good and important. But opposing the deeply unpopular, out-of-state Pebble Mine was about as politically risky for her as admitting that the Seahawks are her favorite NFL team. And it was Tribal Nations who risked their treaty rights in court to force Washington state to restore hundreds of miles of salmon habitat blocked by old culverts. A good politician does the right thing when it’s easy; a leader finds solutions when doing so is hard or risky.

With her expertise in technology and infrastructure, Cantwell is ideally positioned to help lead the replacement of the Lower Snake River dams’ services. She chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and has over two decades of experience and relationships in D.C. She is smart and tough. But to be a leader, Sen. Cantwell must help diverse stakeholders craft solutions that ensure abundant salmon through dam removal while bringing Northwest communities forward together.

Miles Johnson is legal director for Columbia Riverkeeper.

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