Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray said breaching the lower Snake River dams is not immediately feasible but the state, region and nation must work to make implementation of the salmon-saving measure a future possibility.
Their much-anticipated report on the issue, released Thursday, says saving the fish is imperative and calls for investments in clean energy development and transportation infrastructure to replace the low-carbon electricity generated at the dams and the tug-and-barge system farmers rely on to get inland crops to West Coast ports.
“We must recognize that breaching the dams does in fact offer us the best chance at protecting endangered salmon and other iconic species that run through these waters. But the hydropower and economic benefits of the dams are significant, and breaching them before we have other systems in place to replace those benefits would be disastrous,” Inslee said in a prepared statement.
He told the Tribune that closing the gap is feasible and touted recent federal infrastructure and climate legislation as positive steps.
“First thing is we have to do all of this work, not just one part of it. It’s not just energy. It’s not just transportation. It’s not just access to irrigation. It’s all of these things,” he said. “And we have to have a comprehensive plan to replace them all. So what we propose is to engage all of our multiple tools in the toolbox to develop the plans and implementation policies to get those things done. It’s a lot of work and this is pushing the go button on that work.”
Murray said in a statement that the region needs to move with some speed. Both of them called on the federal government to lead the effort and to include input from states and tribes.
“Sustaining or replacing the benefits of the dams will require several urgent undertakings: we need to do a lot more to transition to clean and renewable energy sources, we have to invest in the region’s infrastructure to lower the cost of shipping goods to market, and we have to invest in water infrastructure and irrigation to support our producers in the face of a worsening climate crisis,” Murray said.
The report, much like its draft released in June, says replacing the services of the dams will cost between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion at a minimum over the next 50 years. In the last three decades, the region has spent about $18 billion trying to save the fish with the dams in place. Much of that effort has focused on restoring inland spawning habitat and spilling water at Snake and Columbia river dams during the months juvenile fish are migrating to the ocean.
Breaching the four dams that turned the river between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities into slackwater and slowed the annual migration of salmon and steelhead has been debated for more than three decades. According to fisheries scientists, restoring the river would increase survival of juvenile and adult salmon. But it would also eliminate the generation of electricity at the dams, make tug-and-barge transportation between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities impossible, and reduce irrigation capacity near the Tri-Cities.
Last month, the Biden administration said in a draft report that climate change is a grave threat and the dams must be breached if Snake River salmon and steelhead runs are to be restored to levels that allow for the sustainable harvest of wild fish. The federal government and plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit over Snake River salmon and operation of the federal Columbia Hydropower System are in settlement talks that were recently extended for a year.
Key stakeholders from both sides of the salmon-versus-dams debate found positives in the report and the statements issued by Inslee and Murray.
Supporters of the dams were relieved that Inslee and Murray did not emphatically endorse dam removal. Kurt Miller, executive director of the Northwest River Partners said the nuanced position they took shows they listened to stakeholders like his members, who depend on hydropower produced at the many dams along the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.
“We have been saying the technology doesn’t exist yet to achieve the regions’ decarbonization requirement without the dams. I think their statement confirms that. It confirms they recognize that,” he said. “It sounds like they really listened to the experts on these issues and came away with what I think is a responsible answer that really we just can’t do it right now.”
Samuel N. Penney, chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said the report goes in the right direction
“We appreciate Senator Murray and Governor Inslee’s recognition that salmon extinction is unacceptable, and that restoring the lower Snake River can be done in a way that not only addresses affected sectors but also ensures a better future for the Northwest,” he said in a statement.
Mitch Cutter, of the Idaho Conservation League at Boise, said recommendations made by Inslee and Murray, including their push for rapid development of renewable energy, a study of Washington’s transportation infrastructure and revamping regional salmon restoration funding by shifting authority away from the Bonneville Power Administration and toward states and tribes show they are committed to making dam breaching possible in the future. He said he does wish the recommendations came with a timeline that would make breaching possible by 2030.
“That sort of urgency was a little lacking from their recommendations,” he said. “That is something we are asking of them.”
Officials at the Ports of Lewiston and Clarkston were still studying the report Thursday and were not able to make immediate comments.
The recommendations of Inslee and Murray are available at bit.ly/3Kk6l5h and the full “Lower Snake River Dams: Benefit Replacement Report” is available at bit.ly/3Cs6m5c.