Report acknowledges government role in salmon impacts by dams

SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. government on Tuesday acknowledged, for the first time, the role it has played over the past century in building and operating dams in the Pacific Northwest — dams that are said to have devastated Native American tribes by inundating their villages and decimating salmon runs while bringing electricity, irrigation, and jobs to nearby communities.

In a new report, the Biden administration said those cultural, spiritual, and economic detriments continue to pain the tribes, which consider salmon part of their cultural and spiritual identity, as well as being a crucial food source.

The government downplayed or accepted the well-known risk to the fish in its drive for industrial development, converting the wealth of the tribes into the wealth of non-Native people, according to the report.

“The government afforded little, if any, consideration to the devastation the dams would bring to Tribal communities, including to their cultures, sacred sites, economies, and homes,” the report said.

It added: “Despite decades of efforts and an enormous amount of funding attempting to mitigate these impacts, salmon stocks remain threatened or endangered and continued operation of the dams perpetuates the myriad adverse effects.”

The Interior Department’s report comes amid a $1 billion effort announced earlier this year to restore the region’s salmon runs before more become extinct — and to better partner with the tribes on the actions necessary to make that happen.

That includes increasing the production and storage of renewable energy to replace hydropower generation that would be lost if four dams on the lower Snake River are ever breached. Tribes, conservationists, and federal scientists say that would be the best hope for recovering the salmon, providing the fish with access to hundreds of miles of habitat and spawning grounds in Idaho.

“President Biden recognizes that to confront injustice, we must be honest about history – even when doing so is difficult,” said a statement from White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary. “In the Pacific Northwest, an open and candid conversation about the history and legacy of the federal government’s management of the Columbia River is long overdue.”

Many legislators and business and utility groups oppose breaching the dams, saying it would jeopardize an important shipping route for farmers and throw off clean-energy goals. 

GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents eastern Washington, called Tuesday’s report a “sham.”

“This bad faith report is just the latest in a long list of examples that prove the Biden administration’s goal has always been dam breaching,” she said in a written statement.

The document was a requirement of an agreement last year to halt decades of legal fights over the operation of the dams. 

It lays out how government and private interests in the early 20th century began walling off the tributaries of the Columbia River, the largest in the Northwest, to provide water for irrigation or flood control, compounding the damage that was already being caused to water quality and salmon runs by mining, logging and rapacious non-tribal salmon cannery operations.

The report was accompanied by the announcement of a new task force to coordinate salmon-recovery efforts across federal agencies.

Tribal representatives said they were gratified with the administration’s formal, if long-belated, acknowledgement of how the U.S. government ignored their treaty-based fishing rights and their concerns about how the dams would affect their people.

“The salmon themselves have been suffering the consequences since the dams first were put in,” said Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. “The lack of salmon eventually starts affecting us, but they’re the ones who have been suffering the longest. … It feels like there’s an opportunity to end the suffering.”