WASHINGTON – Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee announced Friday that they will be leading a regional process to review “all options” to restore declining salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River Basin, including the possible breach of the Lower Snake River dams.
In a joint statement, the Washington Democrats made the first details of an initiative they first announced in May. In a virtual conservationist meeting last week, Inslee outlined the process that will assess what would be needed to replace – and if needed, to – the transportation, hydropower and irrigation benefits of the four dams between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities Preserve salmon in the Snake River and its tributaries.
“We approach this question with an open mind and without a pre-determined decision,” said Murray and Inslee. “We both believe the time has come for the region to work out specific details on how or not to mitigate the impact of security breaches.”
Their announcement came a day after the federal government and conservation groups agreed to suspend a 20-year legal battle over measures to conserve salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
20-year legal tug-of-war between federal managers on the Snake River and conservation and tribal interests may be put on hold until next summer
A 20-year legal tug-of-war between federal executives on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and conservation and tribal interests could be suspended until next summer. | Continue reading “
Recognizing “the urgency to address this long-standing challenge as salmon stocks continue to decline,” they wrote, their recommendations will be finalized by the end of July 2022. Before that, they plan to do a “robust outreach” to hear from communities across the Northwest, including tribes, who say their fishing rights – guaranteed by treaties – are being undermined by the decline in salmon stocks.
The statement also set out a roadmap for legislation in Congress to keep the dam break on the table. Murray intends to use the Water Resources Development Act, a bill passed by Congress every two years, to approve a state study to assess the cost and impact of dam breaches.
This law should be passed in the second half of 2022, and the study – conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers or some other federal agency – could pave the way for Congress to break the dam in a subsequent Water Resources Development Act in 2024 or 2026 approve the Murray-Inslee process will make a recommendation to break the dam, a federal study would only look into what such a move would take.
Shortly after Murray and Inslee made their announcement, reactions poured in from both sides of the dam breach debate.
A coalition of 12 dam-breaking conservation groups – including Columbia Riverkeeper, the Idaho Conservation League, and Trout Unlimited – welcomed the initiative, particularly because of its focus on tribal involvement and the Murray and Inslee decision, not “at zero to begin ”and promised to draw on the extensive research that has already been carried out on a topic that has been discussed for decades.
In a statement, Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, credited Murray with moving the process forward in Congress, but warned that another federal study alone would not solve the salmon wars in the region.
Chris Wood, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited, called breaking a dam an “inevitable conclusion” to the Democratic process.
The coalition pointed to a recent poll conducted on their behalf which found that while most Washington voters were unaware of an attempt to break the barriers and replace their virtues, 59% of them were open to the idea, when it was described to them.
However, the poll also found that far more Washington voters believe removing the dams is unnecessary than those who think a break must happen to save salmon. That perspective is advocated by the state’s three GOP MPs, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane; Dan Newhouse from Sunnyside; and Jaime Herrera Beutler from Battle Ground.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the public and stakeholders relying on the Columbia Snake River System are excluded from discussions between the Biden administration, federal agencies, and groups whose sole mandate is to break through the dams of the Lower Snake River The three Republicans announced in a joint statement.
GOP lawmakers called the timing of the Murray and Inslee announcement – one day after the Biden administration announced the suspension of the litigation – suspicious at best, “GOP lawmakers said the Murray-Inslee trial was” no more than one predetermined back door deal seems to be in the making ”. . “
“It should sound the alarm for anyone interested in transparency and balanced public dialogue about the important role of dams in the Pacific Northwest,” they said. “There’s something fishy going on, and it’s not just the promising salmon returners we see on the Lower Snake River.”
That last line of the Republicans’ statement relates to the number of spring and summer chinooks counted on the uppermost dam of the Lower Snake River this year, a 17% increase over the previous year, which they cited to argue that salmon can recover without breaking the dams.
Tribes and conservation groups counter that despite this increase, the chinooks and other fish returning to spawn in the Snake River Basin are well below their historical levels. This number also includes hatching fish that are not counted under the Endangered Species Act, according to which the Snake River Spring and Summer Chinook are listed as “threatened”.
Samuel Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Council, welcomed the move by Inslee and Murray, which he believes is coming “a moment of crisis for the Northwest that the tribes and their peoples may have seen most clearly and worryingly.”
“Salmon are in a crisis; there is a clearly intertwined global warming crisis; and for tribes, this is a moment of open demand that the United States address 90 years of tribal and environmental injustice imposed on the tribes and their lands and waters by the Columbia Power System, “Penney said in a statement.
“The Columbia Power System was literally built from the rivers and reserves and homelands of 19 tribes of the Columbia Basin. When one really understands this destructive story, the humility of the current call is clear, and the science that supports it is clear: salmon need a free-flowing, climate-resilient Lower Snake River, not a series of slow, easily warmed reservoirs. The Nez Perce tribe and their people want to make sure that salmon do not become extinct under our watch. “
Kurt Miller, the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a Vancouver, Washington-based hydropower advocacy group, called Murray and Inslee’s commitment to salmon production “commendable,” but questioned its transparency and feared it would begin adoption that breaking a dam is the best way to save Snake River salmon.
“You can see they are looking into replacing the services of the Snake River dams,” he said. “But they are skipping an issue that I think is more important, which is whether you should replace the services.”
“I think the truth is that people don’t like the idea that climate change is the cause because it makes them feel helpless,” Miller said, pointing to the decline in chinook salmon along the Pacific coast of the US and Canada scientists attribute in part to changing marine conditions.
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of fishing associations and conservation groups, said he was encouraged by the announcement from Inslee and Murray and hoped to make progress on breaking the dam next year.
“We have a certain political window of time in 2022,” he said. “And that doubles the sense of urgency.”
Bogaard added that he is credited to Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, for starting the process by advocating the dam breach as part of a comprehensive proposal he made in February after years of private stakeholder meetings published in the region.
Simpson did not respond to a request for comment on Murray and Inslee’s approach, which seems to mirror his in many ways, even though Simpson’s proposal did not get the support from either Democrats or Republicans it needed to secure funding through bipartisan infrastructure laws, which passed the Senate in August.
Senator Maria Cantwell, Chair of the Senate Trade Committee, a key body responsible for parts of the federal hydropower system, also welcomed the announcement by her Washington Democrats.
“Salmon are an integral part of the Northwest’s economy and environment,” Cantwell said in a statement. “I look forward to everyone stepping out of the courtroom and working together on science-based solutions. I look forward to hearing from all Washingtonians, including tribes, farmers, fishermen and river users, and to working with my colleagues on this topic. “
Murray and Inslee will shortly announce an opportunity for the public to submit written comments as part of their process, they said in the statement.