By Earl Blumenauer and Mike Simpson
May 9, 2021
Blumenauer, a Democrat, represents Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Mike Simpson, a Republican, represents Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and recently released a framework for reimagining the Northwest energy landscape and recovering critically endangered salmon populations.
For Northwesterners, the majestic Columbia River defines who we are and how we relate to our region. The lifeblood of Native peoples since time immemorial and vital to many contemporary inhabitants of the basin, the Columbia has become increasingly mechanized as our communities have grown. While harnessing this mighty waterway for low-cost hydropower has netted great benefits for agriculture and modern commerce, it has also led to unintended consequences that are taking a toll on tribes, communities, industries and salmon.
Today, it is hard to imagine the region without the re-engineering of the Columbia River Basin because we have treated the river as a machine. Yet, as we look towards the future, it is important to consider our relationship to the river: how we have altered it and how we manage it.
This is a unique moment in time. We are in the midst of renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty with Canada, which will define the next 50 years of our relationship with one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. We also have an opportunity to work with the new Biden administration to keep our promises to Native people and to protect and maintain the health of our waterways and watersheds.
We have spent decades embroiled in countless lawsuits and expended huge sums of money in a futile effort to manage dwindling salmon stocks. Despite significant effort and billions of dollars, we may see a future without iconic Northwest salmon as part of our heritage to pass on. At the same time, we’ve seen profound changes in the business of supplying electric power to communities who rely on it. For 75 years, environmental stresses have grown. There is now an overlay of climate change and demands for massive investments in rebuilding and renewing America.
During our time in Congress, both of us have made it a priority to call upon the region to engage thoughtfully, proactively and comprehensively about what’s next for the Columbia River system. As we look to the future, we must consider what is necessary to meet the needs of all of the river’s complex dependents, starting with the salmon runs that are so critical to Native peoples and ecosystems. Although many are skeptical and reluctant to change, all understand that something needs to be done. And now is the best time to act.
Make no mistake: To address this unsustainable cycle, a comprehensive well-funded solution is the only path forward practically, politically and operationally. Restoring the health of the river, to meet the needs of those who fish, navigate, irrigate, and recreate along its banks, will require significant investment and re-engineering.
To do this right, we need to change the status quo to focus instead on a comprehensive solution – a Northwest solution – that can save the salmon and allow all of the stakeholders to thrive while ensuring environmental protections. Rep. Simpson’s proposal from two months ago is a bold starting point.The challenges are obvious to see: an evolving Northwest power market, stresses on the Bonneville Power Administration, practical implications of habitat restoration and the demands for the Columbia-Snake system’s abundant waters. Equally obvious are potential solutions, but they require a high level of engagement by the region’s governors, congressional delegation tribes, and stakeholders. Together, we must acknowledge this for what it is: an existential threat to iconic fish species, to indigenous ways of life, and to sustainability and prosperity throughout the region.
We must not forget that the Columbia Basin tribes have rights to the water and the fish that once thrived. This is not merely optional for the federal government and the stakeholders. This is a solemn obligation of treaty and federal law.
Right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create our own future for the Northwest and define what it will look like for generations to come. We may never again have a chance like this to craft a solution by the Northwest and for the Northwest, to protect our waters, salmon, communities and way of life.
It will require unprecedented cooperation, innovation, and investment, but we are convinced that this is the time to convene the people of the Pacific Northwest to make this critical effort a reality.
We call on our fellow elected officials, tribes, stakeholders and citizens to roll up our sleeves and come together to have the difficult conversation necessary to find a solution to save our salmon, redress tribal inequities, and reset our energy system for the next 50 plus years. It would be a tragedy if future generations looked back and asked – why couldn’t they even talk to each other?