Settlement talks between Snake and Columbia river salmon advocates and the federal government will continue for at least another year and include dam breaching as a possible fish recovery strategy.
On Thursday, the Biden administration and plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit over the harm federal dams inflict on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead agreed to extend a stay in court proceedings that has been in place since last October. The parties — which include the federal government as the defendant and the Nez Perce and other tribes, the state of Oregon and a coalition of fishing and environmental groups as plaintiffs — are seeking a “durable long-term strategy to restore salmon and other native fish populations to healthy and abundant levels.”
In agreeing to the extension, the government has committed to looking at breaching the four lower Snake River dams and reintroducing salmon above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams on the upper Columbia River.
The federal government operates 14 dams on the two rivers. Dams on the Snake River have been shown to negatively affect survival rates for spring chinook, fall chinook, sockeye and steelhead, all of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. On the Columbia River, Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams have no fish passage mechanisms and the fish runs above them have long been extinct.
But the system of hydroelectric dams also provide a significant portion of the electricity consumed by residents of the Pacific Northwest and beyond and on the Snake River the dams make it possible to ship commodities like wheat between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities.
Last month, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a draft report that the Snake River dams must be breached if wild salmon and steelhead that return to the river are to be restored to fishable numbers. On Thursday, the administration issued a news release saying extension of the stay will aid in the effort to recover the fish and meet the needs of other stakeholders in the region, including the production of affordable and reliable power and those who use the river for transportation.
Samuel N. Penney, chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe called the extension a significant development in the decadeslong fight to save the fish and honor tribal treaty rights.
“We will continue to speak the truth about what the salmon need, in this moment of tribal unity in the Northwest and across the Nation,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “Tribes, more than anyone, understand the moment we face: a Columbia Basin salmon crisis, a climate crisis and a crisis of 90 years of tribal injustice imposed by the Columbia power system on Indian people and their homelands, waters and fisheries.”
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said extending the stay is a hopeful sign.
“We have the best chance of resolving this conflict and developing a long term plan for salmon in the Snake and Columbia river systems that works for communities too if we are talking to each other and working together.”
Chris Wood, executive director of Trout Unlimited, said the decadeslong work of the Nez Perce and other Columbia Basin tribes and the efforts by fishing and conservation groups are starting to pay off.
“For a long time I feel like we have been tilting at windmills and it’s finally beginning to feel like we are making progress in terms of recovering Snake River salmon and steelhead.”
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners, a group that represents public power utilities, said the people he represents have so far been locked out of the talks that are limited only to the plaintiffs and the federal government. He hopes that will change soon.
“It’s really a big deal for our members,” he said. “We are talking about the potential for huge rate hikes and the loss of reliable power and we haven’t been allowed to engage and it’s not clear we will be invited to engage moving forward.”
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and several other Republican members of Congress from Idaho, Oregon and Washington scolded the administration for what they called its “lack of transparency and political intervention in processes that could lead to breaching the Lower Snake River dams.”
“The recent actions by this administration have sown complete distrust in this administration’s ability to lead with facts, science, and transparency regarding the Columbia River System,” the lawmakers wrote.“These actions will undoubtedly have long-term and damaging effects on this administration’s ability to bring diverse stakeholders together to chart a path forward on species recovery and preservation of the vital benefits of the Columbia River System.”