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Save Our Wild Salmon

sockeye salmon Neil Ever Osborne

Feb. 23, 2024
By Isabella Breda

Leaders of four Pacific Northwest tribal nations Indigenous to the region on Friday inked a historic agreement with the U.S. that lays out the future of the operations of hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin, including the dams on the Lower Snake River.

At the White House Friday, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes, and states of Washington and Oregon signed a memorandum of understanding, outlining a series of commitments from the federal government.

It’s not an agreement for dam removal; in fact, removal of the Lower Snake dams, a long-running and controversial goal of tribes and other groups, is put off for years. But it’s the end of an era.

“We need a lot more clean energy, but we need to develop it in a way that’s socially just,” Yakama Nation Chairman Gerald Lewis said at the White House Friday. “The last time energy was developed in the Columbia Basin it was done on the backs of tribal communities and tribal resources.”

“Now we have an opportunity to do better and to have the tribes at the table.”

Tribal nations helped draw up a road map for the future of the region’s energy and salmon. Under the $1 billion-plus agreement, tribes will help restore wild fish and assist in the construction of at least 1 to 3 gigawatts of clean-energy production.

The agreement stems from years of mediated negotiations in a decades long court battle over dam operations. A stay of litigation is in place for up to five years and could continue for as long as 10.

In a key compromise, the agreement also reduces water spilled over the dams for summer and fall run fish, including fall Chinook, one of the more robust salmon runs on the river, and a mainstay of tribal and sport fisheries. That allows the Bonneville Power Administration to sell more power from the dams into the lucrative California power market.

However, spring spill would be boosted, to help spring Chinook by providing something more like a spring freshet for young fish migrating to the sea.

It comes as climate change turns more mountain snow to rain, throwing imperiled salmon and steelhead into hot water, and straining access to a steady stream of hydropower.

Meanwhile, BPA this month reported a net revenue loss of $102 million for the first quarter of the 2024 fiscal year due to dry winter conditions and high power prices in the Pacific Northwest.

Some river users welcome the change.

“Let’s just get on with it,” said Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, in an interview. “We never thought that pounding the table and saying hell no, was going to get anybody anywhere.”

The irrigators delivered a report to Gov. Jay Inslee this week putting a price — $750 million — on irrigated land values impacted by dam removal.

Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray commissioned a report on replacing the benefits of the dams — energy, transportation and irrigation — released in August 2022. The report estimated an infrastructure program totaling $10.1 billion to $31.3 billion could replace the dams’ services.

They vowed dam removal could not happen without replacing those services first.

On Friday, Inslee said future generations — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — deserve to experience the joy of seeing salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is only the beginning,” said White House senior adviser John Podesta. “In a sense this agreement really is just a handshake … it will take all of us committing to this partnership now and for years to come to lift the words off the page and bring this agreement to life.”

Seattle Times: PNW tribal nations, states sign historic Columbia Basin agreement with U.S. article link

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