President Biden commits $200 million to reintroducing salmon, steelhead between Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams
By Eric Barker Of the Tribune
Sep 22, 2023
The Biden administration committed the federal government to backing a decadeslong, tribal-led effort aimed at undoing the extinction of salmon and steelhead in the upper Columbia River.
The $200-million, 20-year deal announced Tuesday will facilitate the reintroduction of the anadromous fish upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams. It is the first substantive agreement to emerge from mediated talks between the administration and a coalition of Columbia River tribes and fishing and conservation groups that are suing the federal government over the damage its dams have wrought on salmon and steelhead.
The deal with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe of Indians is specific to the upper Columbia River and has no bearing on talks over the Snake River and its threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs. Those discussions, which include proposals to breach one or more of the lower Snake River dams, are scheduled to sunset at the end of next month.
The Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, built between the 1930s and 1950s, are the workhorses of the Columbia River Hydropower System. But they were erected without fish ladders and wiped out salmon and steelhead runs that spawned from Hangman Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River, all the way into British Columbia, Canada. The loss of those runs deprived inland rivers of marine-derived nutrients and left a painful hole in tribal cultures and economies. Hemene James, vice-chairperson of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, spoke of the decades-old loss during a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C. Not only did the tribes miss the fish for the sustenance they provided but also for the way they brought people together when the salmon returned.
“We gathered with our different clans,” he said. “We gathered with our neighboring tribes. It was a joyous occasion. Marriages were made. You (saw) family you didn’t get to see. Political deals were done. The plan for the next year was set in motion. All of that and much more was taken away when those fish were impeded from coming upriver.”
According to terms of the deal, the federal government will fund and help facilitate Phase 2 of the tribal effort with $200 million that will come largely from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets power produced at the dams. During Phase 1, the tribes studied the quality of habitat upstream of the dams and found it can support tens of thousands of adult chinook and sockeye salmon. Phase 2, already underway, has included test releases of juvenile salmon in places like the Spokane River that have shown promising results. A small percentage of those fish have survived the downstream journey through Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph and eight other dams on the Columbia River. A few of them have even returned upriver and made it as far as Chief Joseph Dam.
“I often say there is much to be gained when we respect and integrate Indigenous knowledge into our initiatives, and this celebration is no exception,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the signing ceremony. “Today’s agreement marks the beginning of a new kind of partnership that will lay the groundwork for healthy and abundant salmon populations throughout the upper Columbia basin.”
Shannon Wheeler was not at the ceremony but the chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe said the deal makes him happy. Wheeler has been one of the most high profile leaders in the effort to restore the lower Snake River through dam breaching.
“It’s a great step in the right direction for our brothers and sisters up there up in the upper Columbia River who have been without salmon for at least 80 years or so,” he said. “Getting that reintroduction past Joe and Coulee is definitely a big win for the environment, the system and the tribes that will be doing that work.”
Wheeler said he and others are still pushing to reach an agreement of similar or greater magnitude on the Snake River where wild fish are struggling but can still access their spawning habitat. The mediated talks have been going on for about two years and put a temporary halt to the latest iteration of a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s attempt to balance operation of the hydrosystem with efforts to recover the threatened and endangered fish.
“We are still in good conversations that are meaningful,” he said. “We are just looking for what’s next — preventing the extinction of salmon in the lower Snake River being a priority of the administration as well.”