This editorial was published by the Tri-City Herald of Kennewick, Wash.
It appears partisan politics has unabashedly and officially taken over the debate on whether salmon and the Snake River dams can coexist.
The Biden administration’s Council on Environmental Quality just released two draft reports suggesting that removing the Snake River dams could be worth an insanely expensive price tag if it means there is even the slightest chance it would help fish.
For years, studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said that breaching the Snake dams would make a negligible improvement in salmon runs.
But now NOAA is saying it’s time to go to a “larger scale” because other actions haven’t worked.
Just how large a scale are we talking about? Even if the Snake dams are breached, salmon still have to pass through four lower dams on the Columbia River.
What about the Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams, which are on the Snake River near the Idaho and Oregon border? They have no fish ladders and have blocked a historic spawning route for steelhead and chinook salmon since they were built half-a-century ago.
So far, federal officials don’t seem interested in getting rid of them.
And let’s not forget about the contaminated stormwater runoff that ends up in Puget Sound. Toxic chemicals are harmful to salmon and Orcas — but again, fixing that pricey problem hasn’t received as much federal attention.
The point is the Snake dams have been the easy target for decades, even though there is no way they are solely responsible for the decline in salmon — especially considering that salmon survival along the entire west coast of North America has fallen by 65%, from northern Canada on down.
As it happens, the fish survival rates past the Snake River dams are 95% to 98%.
Spring/summer chinook returns in May were double the levels of 2021, and the sockeye count at Bonneville Dam in June was the highest they’ve been in 10 years.
But data doesn’t matter when it conflicts with a political narrative.
Sadly, there are so many problems threatening salmon that we can’t control that public officials appear to be grabbing on to one that they can — even if there is no guarantee it will work.
At their convention in June, Washington state Democrats voted 534-75 in favor of breaching the Snake dams. This, no doubt, was bolstered by the joint efforts of fellow Democrats Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to initiate another analysis on the Snake dams, which will likely support what the Biden CEQ team has already determined.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, responded to the White House draft with criticism that central Washington — the region most affected if the Snake dams are breached — was ignored in the CEQ report.
On his website, Newhouse claims he was never asked to provide information for the reports, even though the dams are in his congressional district.
But the Biden administration worked “hand-in-hand” with Inslee, Murray and Congressman Mike Simpson — a Republican from Idaho who wants the dams breached. Simpson released his own plan last year that estimated it would take $33.5 billion to replace or mitigate lost benefits of removing the lower Snake River dams.
Newhouse also noted that NOAA originally stated that dams “are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of salmon, but the agency is now “toeing the party line.”
While CEQ officials say that the Biden administration has not endorsed or recommended the actions in the draft report, including breaching dams, the signs are certainly pointing in that direction.
Politics has always been a factor in the Snake dam debate, but the combination of the Biden-Inslee-Murray effort in addition to state Democrats taking an official position against the dams has pushed partisanship to a new level.
So we have to wonder — how much will science and fish counts even matter in this debate?