By The Herald Editorial Board
Two recent announcements by the Biden administration — and a pending settlement of a lawsuit by Northwest Tribes, environmental groups and others against the federal government — are providing some hope for the eventual return of an abundance of salmon to the Northwest’s Columbia River Basin while recognizing the role the basin’s hydroelectric dams must play in assuring the region’s clean-energy future.
What must come from these recent and pending agreements and the work and investments that follow from them is the recognition that neither the future of salmon nor of hydropower can come at the cost of the elimination of the other.
Earlier this week, the Biden administration issued a presidential memorandum that calls for federal agencies to use their existing authority and resources to prioritize the restoration of healthy and abundant wild salmon, steelhead and other native fish populations to the Columbia River Basin, which encompasses much of Washington and Oregon, nearly all of Idaho and reaches into Wyoming, Montana and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
Recognizing the basin’s legacy of providing water, power, recreation, agriculture, transportation and opportunity to the region, the memorandum also notes that the federal government’s construction and operation of dams, other dam building, population growth and overfishing have changed the ecosystem and depleted wild fish stocks, substantially harming the ability of Northwest Tribes to exercise their treaty rights — held since 1855 — to fish in all usual and accustomed places, rights they gained in ceding their land.
Since the first dams began blocking the basin’s rivers, 13 fish species have been listed as threatened or endangered.
“We commend President Biden for his commitment to salmon recovery and focusing the full power and scope of the federal government on this issue,” Corinne Sams, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in a statement. “He has sent a clear message throughout the federal government that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Never before has the federal government issued a presidential memorandum on salmon. This is historic.”
As well, the president’s action represents a shift from past commitments for merely “avoiding jeopardy” under the Endangered Species Act to ensuring “healthy and abundant” fish populations, a recognition of past failures and a renewed commitment to honoring its treaties with Northwest Tribes.
The week before, the Biden administration essentially put a down payment on that commitment by pledging $200 million over the next 20 years from the Bonneville Power Administration — the agency responsible for managing the region’s federal hydroelectric dams — to support a tribally directed plan to restore salmon and steelhead and develop fish passage to the Upper Columbia Basin above the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, which have blocked fish passage to spawning grounds historically fished by the Colville, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes. Another $8 million from the Bureau of Reclamation also was pledged toward the effort.
The agreement with the tribes bars them from seeking litigation for the same 20-year span.
Those two commitments will be joined — perhaps by the end of October — a settlement in the lawsuit by the National Wildlife Federation, other environmental groups, the state of Oregon and the Spokane and Couer d’Alene tribes over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. A settlement had been expected at the end of August, but parties agreed to continue negotiations until Oct. 31. Possible provisions of a settlement have not been publicly released.
Not discussed in either of this month’s announcements by the Biden administration was the fate of the four dams in southeast Washington state on the Lower Snake River, which meets with the Columbia near the Tri-Cities. The dams have been the focus of a long struggle between those who see their removal as crucial to survival of chinook and other salmon and steelhead species and those who are keen to protect what the four dams provide in terms of electricity, barge transportation, irrigation and flood control.
Ultimately, the future of the dams would be determined by Congress, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report last summer that concluded that removal of the four dams was key to a range of efforts needed to restore healthy salmon runs to the Snake and the rest of the Columbia Basin.
As well, a 2021 joint report from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee committed to a process to determine whether there are “reasonable means for replacing the benefits provided by the Lower Snake River dams” that would justify the dams’ removal as part of a strategy to aid recovery of salmon.
The Biden administration’s announcements this month make the case for urgent action by federal, state and local agencies and organizations to ensure not just the survival of salmon and steelhead species but their abundance. The effort that will be required — especially as the impacts of climate change throw more uncertainty into the mix — will be substantial and will demand considerable investments.
There’s concern that what has been invested thus far in hatchery programs alone — as much as $9 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 50 years — has produced underwhelming results in rebuilding wild stocks of salmon.
A study by an Oregon State University economics professor and a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington, published in July, found that while the number of salmon and steelhead born in hatcheries that return as adults to the basin’s rivers has grown slightly, the wild populations of salmon and steelhead have not; and in some cases the hatchery fish are harming wild stocks through the spread of disease, competition for food and predation by hatchery fish.
The editorial board noted in August that the Columbia Basin’s dams remain necessary to the Northwest. But as those dams — some of which are approaching a century of service — age and require maintenance and replacement of turbines and other infrastructure, decisions will have to be made as to where and for which dams those investments can provide the greatest benefits in energy generation, transportation and irrigation while providing for tribal fishing rights, commercial and recreational fishing and survival of salmon and other species.
We also must recognize that the largely clean electricity provided by hydroelectric dams will be key in the transition to clean energy sources from fossil fuels, which have had immense and direct impact on climate and environment.
The Biden administration — with its effort to review and recommit its agencies’ actions and investments — recognizes that the best course of action is to honor the treaties with Northwest Tribes that have been in place for more than 150 years and which can drive those necessary efforts.
If the Columbia Basin is to continue providing both electricity and salmon, nothing less than the force of treaty and responsibilities of public trust will succeed.