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May 28, 2022

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In Our View: New approach is needed to save iconic salmon

The Columbian
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It is clear that a different approach is needed for saving salmon runs in the Northwest. The region’s orca population is struggling, partly because of a lack of salmon — the orca’s only food source. And more than $17 billion has been spent in the past two decades to prevent salmon extinction — with limited success.

The Columbia River system once was the world’s most prodigious producer of salmon, making the fish a Northwest icon. Now, there are questions about how long various species will survive, with 13 salmon runs listed as endangered or threatened. Unfortunately, they are the same questions that have been asked for decades.

Preeminent about discussions surrounding the future of salmon are proposals to remove four dams on the Snake River. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, this year put forth a plan to remove the dams and provide $33.5 billion in federal spending to mitigate the impact of that removal.

That impact would be profound. The dams provide hydroelectricity, flood control, irrigation and river navigation. They create untold economic benefits for people on both sides of the Cascades.

As the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin wrote editorially last week: “Those living and working closer to the Snake River are concerned breaching will devastate the economy with no guarantee it’s the answer to the declining salmon runs riddle. But we do know that if the dams are gone and the Snake River is allowed to run free, the economic toll to the Northwest would be incredibly high. The water from a free-flowing Snake would flood farms, roadways, homes and even cities. Jobs would be lost and people would be displaced.”

Weighing that against the potential loss of salmon runs is an impossible equation. But Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., want to keep calculating.

Murray long has opposed removal of the dams, but last month she joined the governor in announcing a study of how to replace the hydroelectricity, barge shipping and other benefits provided by the four dams.

Numerous studies have been conducted regarding the future of salmon and the impact of the dams. And a short timetable — Inslee and Murray say the study will be completed by July 31, 2022 — leads to questions about the thoroughness of yet another analysis.

A statement from Washington’s congressional Republicans, including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, reads: “This appears to be nothing more than a predetermined backdoor deal in the making, and it should sound the alarm for anyone interested in transparency and a balanced public dialogue over the vital role the dams play in the Pacific Northwest.”

Indeed, transparency and public dialogue are necessary. But more important is a viable plan to boost salmon runs before it is too late. Unless Republicans come up with an alternative, breaching the dams warrants serious consideration.

Last week, a federal judge in Portland granted a stay in litigation surrounding the issue. Conservation groups had sought an injunction to dramatically increase water flow through dams to help salmon migrate. An agreement was reached on how eight federal dams in the Columbia River Basin will be operated over the coming year, leading to a stay in the lawsuit until July 31.

That adds another layer to a complex problem. And it reminds us that the time for discussion and litigation is running out. While state and federal officials are dawdling, dwindling salmon runs continue to demonstrate the need for a new approach.

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