Supporters say they didn’t have a fair chance to participate in discussion on Snake River dams and salmon recovery
By Eric Barker Of the Tribune
Apr 1, 2023
A U.S. government listening session Friday was dominated by speakers in favor of breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
More than 50 people told representatives of the federal government that the river should be restored to its free flowing state to recover wild salmon and steelhead, compared to just three people who said the dams are vital to the region’s economy and should be retained.
Breaching advocates said the science backing dam removal is clear, that it is necessary to honor tribal treaty rights and that services provided by the dams can and should be replaced. They said salmon are keystone animals important to a wide range of other species from orcas in the Puget Sound to trees in inland forests.
“Federal leadership needs to recognize the dire need for regional planning and investment that will lead to lower Snake River dam removal now and in this decade,” said Tess McEnroe, a rafting guide on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area.
The Middle Fork is one of the state’s pristine, high-elevation streams that fisheries experts say will remain cool even as the climate warms and serve as a vital refuge for wild salmon and steelhead. But while working there over 16 summers, McEnroe has seen fish numbers dwindle.
“I would like my future grandchildren to see the Columbia and Snake rivers, and its hundreds of other tributaries, swollen with the red backs of these fish just as it used to be 100 years ago,” she said.
Julian Mathews, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe from Pullman, said his ancestors gave up claims to a vast territory in the 1855 Treaty in exchange for promises their way of life would be protected.
“We ceded 15 million acres of land and retained rights to hunt, fish and gather and to me the agreement is not being upheld by the government,” he said.
The three-hour, online session was organized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and is tied to settlement talks over a long-running lawsuit centered on threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and federal dams in the Columbia River basin. The dams have fish ladders but scientists say the slackwater they create impedes migration of adult and juvenile fish and is a leading cause of mortality. Studies show too few wild salmon and steelhead survive from smolts to adults for the runs to grow.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon and a coalition of environmental and fishing groups. They have won multiple rounds of the litigation that dates back more than 20 years but have not yet been able to convince the government to breach the dams.
That could be changing. The administration has said business as usual will not recover fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. As part of the settlement negotiations, it has committed to considering recovery thresholds higher than those needed to remove the fish from ESA protection and it has said it will explore dam breaching.
Last year, a NOAA Fisheries report said breaching one or more of the dams, along with a suite of other actions, is needed to recover the fish to healthy and harvestable levels. Last week, President Joe Biden said he is committed to working with tribal and political leaders of the Pacific Northwest to recover the fish. Biden specifically named Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who backs breaching and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said last year breaching offers the best chance of recovering the fish but shouldn’t be done until the power, transportation and irrigation made possible by the dams is replaced.
Breaching the dams would end tug-and-barge transportation of wheat between Lewiston and downriver ports, eliminate about 900 average megawatts of hydroelectric generation and make it more difficult for irrigators near the Tri-cities to access water.
Several speakers cited the work of Simpson, Murray and Insee, who have committed to varying degrees of mitigation to solve the problems created by breaching. Speakers also extolled the economic benefits a recovered fish population would bring to the region from the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria, Ore., to tiny inland towns like Riggins.
“The importance of these fish and the outfitting & guiding industry to these rural Idaho communities cannot be overstated,” said Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. “Yet fishing outfitters and guides and their communities continue to helplessly watch the downward arc of Idaho’s anadromous fish.”
The few people who spoke in favor of the dams said they play a central role in the region’s prosperity and are key to fighting climate change.
“It is critical that we maintain a healthy hydro system which is the backbone of our low carbon emissions electric grid,” said Jennifer Jolly of the Oregon Municipal Electric Utilities Association. “Breaching four highly productive dams with state of the art fish mitigation would be a huge setback for our nation’s decarbonization efforts just when we’re beginning to implement the groundbreaking Inflation Reduction Act. The massive level of electrification required to fuel clean vehicles, clean buildings and clean manufacturing, incentivized by the act will require more hydropower, not less.”
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners that represents community-owned utilities that get much of their electricity from the federal hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake rivers, said after the meeting that dam supporters didn’t get a fair chance to participate.
“I personally don’t believe, given who I heard speak, that these people were selected on a first-come, first-serve basis. I believe it was a curated list. I think it was intentional and if it wasn’t intentional it was incompetent. At the end of the day millions of customers my organization represents were completely left out.”
Matt Philibeck, a commissioner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said the speakers were selected according to the order in which they registered earlier this month. The session, which was not publicized by the government, was limited to three hours and speakers were given three minutes to talk. A second three-hour season will be held Monday but all of the speaking slots are full. An additional meeting will be held May 25 but it is not yet open to registration.