White House and WA/OR Governors sign $1 billion agreement for salmon

The Biden administration, leaders of four Columbia River Basin tribes, and the governors of Washington and Oregon signed papers formally launching a $1 billion plan to help recover depleted salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest.

The plan, announced in December, stopped short of calling for the removal of four controversial dams on the Snake River, as some environmental groups and tribal leaders have urged. 

But officials said it would boost clean energy production and help offset hydropower, transportation, and other benefits provided by the dams should Congress ever agree to breach them.

The plan, brokered by the Biden administration, pauses long-running litigation over federal dam operations and represents a significant step toward eventually taking the four Snake River dams down

The plan would strengthen tribal clean energy projects and provide other benefits for tribes and other communities that depend on the Columbia Basin for agriculture, energy, recreation, and transportation, the White House said.

The agreement, formally known as the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, “deserves to be celebrated,” said Jonathan W. Smith, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

The settlement “takes the interests of all the stakeholders in the Columbia Basin into account,” he said. 

The Columbia River Basin, an area roughly the size of Texas, was once the world’s greatest salmon-producing river system, with at least 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead. 

Today, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Dams are cited as a main culprit behind the salmon’s decline, and federal fisheries scientists have concluded that breaching the dams in eastern Washington on the Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia, would be the best hope for recovering them, providing the fish with access to hundreds of miles of pristine habitat and spawning grounds in Idaho.

Conservation groups sued the federal government more than two decades ago in an effort to save the fish. They have argued that the continued operation of the dams violates the Endangered Species Act as well as treaties dating to the mid-19th century ensuring the tribes’ right to harvest fish.

The signing celebration did not include congressional Republicans who oppose dam breaching and have vowed to block it.

Dams along the Columbia-Snake River system provide more than one-third of all hydropower capacity in the United States, said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In Washington state, hydropower accounts for 70% of electricity consumed.