Dam removal remains on the table on the Lower Snake River under an agreement announced Thursday, after two years of settlement talks between the federal government and tribes and conservationists.
At stake are benefits of low-cost, carbon-free power, irrigation and transportation on the Lower Snake River and survival of salmon at risk of extinction. Now the settlement talks could continue for two more months rather than the parties returning to the courtroom.
The agreement Thursday includes commitments from the Biden administration, plaintiffs, defendants and intervening parties to reach solutions to salmon survival that have the potential to resolve a long-running lawsuit. The extended stay of litigation still needs to be approved by a federal judge. The original stay was set to expire Thursday.
Shannon Wheeler, chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, said the tribe’s position has not changed: dams on the Lower Snake must be breached for salmon to recover in the tribe’s ancestral lands and waters. He said the tribe, which was one of the tribes that brought the lawsuit, will be back in court if steps leading to real salmon recovery are not taken. “We are hammering away at this to get dams breached and salmon recovered — that is our number one goal,” Wheeler said.
River users were frustrated.
“It is a bittersweet announcement; no one likes to be in court,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which represents river users, including public power producers and industries. He said his group, an intervenor in the case, has felt shut out of the negotiating process. “I have absolutely no faith in the process. It feels like a bit of a betrayal,” Miller said. “It has definitely not been a good experience. We will see what happens going forward.”
The agreement will not be a durable solution, Miller said, if it ignores the needs of public power producers across the region. “They don’t have a real seat at this table.”
The government has been sued and lost five times over its operation of the dams, which a series of federal judges going back to 1994 have found imperil salmon, a violation of both the Endangered Species Act and treaties with Native American tribes.
The causes of salmon decline are many, including water withdrawals for irrigation, habitat lost to farming and development, historic overfishing, poor hatchery practices, climate change and fish killed by the dams. Passage for adults and juvenile salmon alike has improved and the Columbia has seen some relatively good years.
But despite billions of dollars spent on salmon recovery, 13 populations of salmon and steelhead are at risk of extinction in the Columbia and Snake. Endangered southern resident orcas, which rely on a wide range of salmon in their diet, get little from what was once one of their most important food sources from the Columbia and Snake.
Spring and summer Chinook populations in the Snake Basin are declining. Many other populations already are gone and others are barely hanging on.
The basin has been developed with dams on both rivers to create a powerhouse of hydropower, with the four Lower Snake dams on average serving about 800,000 homes. Irrigation on one of the pools of the Lower Snake also waters thousands of acres of food crops, and barge transportation through locks extends navigation from saltwater all the way to Lewiston, Idaho.
The construction of dams on the Snake, beginning with Swan Falls in 1901 and continuing with the Hells Canyon Complex in the 1950s and the Lower Snake dams in the 1960s and 1970s, eliminated or severely degraded 530 miles or 80% of the historic habitat for Chinook in the river.
Over the past several years, momentum has continued to build toward dam removal on the Lower Snake.
In February 2021, a Republican congressman from Idaho, Mike Simpson, shocked the region with a $34 billion plan for taking out the dams to benefit salmon, while replacing their benefits. GOP lawmakers panned it. Washington Democratic leaders took a different approach.
Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., commissioned a report on replacing the benefits of the dams, released in August 2022. They found a significant infrastructure program costing $10.1 to $31.3 billion could replace the services of the dams. They also vowed dam removal could not happen without replacing those services first.
A report published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September 2022 found breaching essential to rebuilding the most at risk salmon runs in the Columbia River and Snake, the Columbia’s largest tributary.
Climate change is making actions to rebuild salmon runs all the more urgent. No one action will be enough, the NOAA scientists stressed, but among the essential suite of actions for salmon recovery is “significant reductions in direct and indirect mortality from mainstem dams, including restoration of the lower Snake River through dam breaching,” the scientists concluded.
The Washington Legislature in 2023, at Gov. Inslee’s request, approved $7.5 million to fund studies on replacement of the power, river transportation and irrigation benefits of the dams.
The conflict is one of the longest-running in the region.
In 1994, U.S. District Court Judge Malcom Marsh threw out the federal government’s plan of operations for the dams in the first court case over the issue, challenging the government’s failure to operate the dams while adequately protecting salmon under the Endangered Species Act. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs in that case, decrying agencies’ “small steps, minor improvements and adjustments — when the situation literally cries out for a major overhaul.”