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Save Our Wild Salmon


March 29, 2024
By Dan Evans, Les Purce and KC Golden

“Coming back to the watershed of the Columbia River, which covers the greater part of the States of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and a part of Montana, it is increasingly important that we think of that region as a unit.” — FDR, 1937 address at the Bonneville Dam

The winds of change are howling in the Columbia River Basin. New climate policies are transforming our energy landscape, while the region’s salmon runs are in grave trouble. These challenges are in some ways unprecedented, but the solutions are deeply rooted in our energy history, a past that offers critical lessons and vital tools as we face forward.

We are now entering the third defining era of the region’s modern energy history. In the first, construction of the dams in the Columbia Basin beginning in the New Deal Era brought abundant, cheap power to the region, expanding economic opportunities but imperiling the salmon that sustained native cultures. The second era began in the 1960s, when utilities projected major energy deficits and began an ambitious program of nuclear and coal development. By the 1980s, the financial collapse of the nuclear program resulted in what was then the largest municipal bond default in history, and some salmon stocks neared extinction.

To address these crises, Congress created the Northwest Power and Conservation Council — an interstate compact of the four Columbia Basin states — in 1980. Congress charged the council with developing long-term power and conservation plans and a program to protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife harmed by hydroelectric development. The regional act that created the council included strong provisions for public involvement, transparency and accountability. Guided by the council’s plans, the region dramatically improved energy efficiency and deferred the need for costly new energy infrastructure, saving us billions of dollars on our power bills. Significant investments in fish and wildlife programs have yielded benefits, but wild salmon stocks have declined, and some are critically endangered.

Now comes a third chapter in our region’s energy story — an era marked by climate disruption and energy transition from fossil fuels to clean power. Vehicles, buildings, and industries powered by oil and gas are switching to electricity. Solar and wind are now the cheapest new power supplies, but they are intermittent; new strategies are needed, including energy storage and demand management, to ensure reliability. Information technology is putting huge demands on our power system while offering opportunities for “smart grid” deployment to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

The challenges facing our electric system at the dawn of this third era are immense. Washington’s energy strategy calls for nearly doubling our electric power use over the next several decades, while retiring fossil-fueled power plants. Energy use and costs are likely to decline overall (because electricity is more efficient and cheaper than oil) but electric power demand will grow significantly.

While transitioning our energy system, we must also come to grips with the imperative of salmon recovery. Since salmon and power supply depend so heavily on the same resource — the Columbia River — we must confront these challenges together. Two recent agreements between the federal government and tribes and states in the basin offer pathways to progress. One, with tribes in the Upper Columbia region, provides significant funding to explore the reintroduction of salmon above Grand Coulee Dam. A second agreement between the federal government and the “Six Sovereigns” (the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Spring tribes and the states of Washington and Oregon), commits to multiple initiatives that benefit salmon and support clean energy development.

The new agreements do not definitively resolve the future of the Lower Snake River Dams — that will likely require Congressional action. But they do take further steps toward improving conditions for fish and respecting tribal sovereignty while offering additional federal resources to help address the region’s energy challenges.

In this third regional energy era, history can be a guide. As we did in the 1930s, we need bold thinking and ambitious investments to meet the challenges ahead. But the first energy era also taught us that responsible energy development requires strong environmental safeguards and a commitment to honor tribal treaty rights. The second energy era demonstrated that conservation is often the cheapest energy resource available. We can better ensure a reliable and affordable energy future and protect fish and wildlife if we aggressively reduce waste.

When Congress passed the Regional Act in 1980, it could not have foreseen some of today’s challenges. But the tools Congress provided remain useful, and we can sharpen them to meet the moment.

With more extreme weather and immense uncertainties on both the demand and supply sides, sophisticated energy forecasting, rigorous planning and maximizing energy efficiency are more critical than ever. The council’s process is robust, with powerful tools for modeling the hydropower system and addressing emerging risks. In its next plan, the Council must update its approach to ensure adequate, reliable power supplies and peaking capacity as more of our energy comes from intermittent renewable resources and extreme weather intensifies.

The 1980 act directs substantial federal resources to the states and tribes for fish and wildlife programs. The new Columbia Basin agreements build on this foundation while giving more autonomy to the tribes whose cultures depend on salmon. The success of this expanded effort depends on objective scientific review, regional cooperation, transparency, and accountability. These are the foundations of the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program, and they have never been more vital.

The council, like America, is more divided politically than it was in 1980. But we can’t let politics distract us from this vital mission. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “unity has never meant uniformity.” The act provided powerful tools that can help us tackle today’s challenges, guided by a shared commitment to sound science, rigorous analysis and regional collaboration. We look forward to working with colleagues in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and the region’s sovereign tribes, united by the shared responsibilities that come with stewardship of a resource as vast, bountiful, and central to our regional well-being as the Columbia River.

Dan Evans, Les Purce and KC Golden: 

Dan Evans served as Washington’s Governor (1965-77), U.S. Senator (1983-89), President of the Evergreen State College (1977-83) and the first Chairman of the NW Power and Conservation Council (1981-83).

Les Purce was President of the Evergreen State College (2000-15), Dean of extended academic programs at WSU, and co-chair of the Southern Orca Resident Task Force.

KC Golden directed Washington’s Energy Policy Office in the mid-1990s and has served in a variety of non-profit positions supporting climate solutions. Purce and Golden represent Washington on the NW Power and Conservation Council.

Seattle Times Op-ed: 'Reliable energy, healthy salmon runs: The challenges of having it all' link

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