November 3, 2023
Understanding the cultural and economic impact of salmon, most Northwest residents can agree on the importance of the iconic species. That likely is where the agreements end, however, as decades of discussions, expenditures and preservation efforts have been accompanied by a steady decline in salmon population.
The latest issue surrounding the survival of Northwest salmon — and the orcas that feed on them — involves four dams along the Lower Snake River. One viewpoint advocates for removing the dams, accurately portraying them as a hindrance to salmon survival. The opposite viewpoint advocates for retaining the dams, accurately portraying them as important sources of low-cost hydroelectricity and water for economy-boosting irrigation.
Litigation in federal court over dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers has been paused during settlement talks. The hope is that an agreement will settle the issue out of court, allowing for progress rather than arguments. But progress has been missing throughout decades of hand-wringing over the future of salmon in the Northwest.
Undoubtedly, it is a complex and contentious issue. According to The Seattle Times, the Nez Perce — one of four tribes that brought the current lawsuit — remain committed to salmon recovery in the tribe’s ancestral lands and waters. “We have to be here to speak for the salmon, and we’ll continue to advocate for the full recovery of salmon, steelhead and lamprey,” tribal Chairman Shannon Wheeler said.
That presents a difficulty for the federal government. Since 1994, the government has lost five lawsuits related to its operation of the dams, with judges ruling that the structures violate both the Endangered Species Act and treaties with tribal nations.
But removing the dams would still leave questions about how to replace their benefits. The four Lower Snake River dams on average serve approximately 800,000 homes with electricity. And, as the Times reports: “Irrigation on one of the pools of the Lower Snake also waters thousands of acres of food crops, and barge transportation through locks extends navigation from saltwater to Lewiston, Idaho.”
The Legislature this year approved $7 million to draw up plans for replacing those benefits. The Biden administration has expressed support for healthy and abundant salmon in the Columbia Basin. And various scientific studies have resulted in suggestions for bolstering salmon runs.
But the difficulty of the situation is indicated in a plan developed by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and presented in 2021. After years of study and speaking with stakeholders, Simpson calculated that removing the dams would require a minimum of $33.5 billion in mitigation efforts.
“Despite spending over $17 billion on fish recovery efforts, Idaho salmon and steelhead numbers are not improving and will continue to get worse,” Simpson writes on the website for the Columbia Basin Initiative. “Will we spend $20 billion more in the next 30 years only to have them go extinct anyway? The worse they get, the more we will spend.”
That effectively summarizes the issues. Allowing salmon populations to wither is not a viable option. Neither is removing the dams without replacing the electricity, irrigation and marine transportation they provide. Neither is allowing a court order to determine the ultimate solution.
Building on Simpson’s plan and finding an agreeable solution must be a priority for elected leaders at both the national and state levels. Time is running out — both for negotiations and for salmon.