Two powerful Democrats from the Pacific Northwest are launching a formal review to study the possibility of removing four hydropower dams currently in the path of wild salmon migrating between the Pacific Ocean and breeding grounds in Idaho’s high mountain streams.
In an escalation of the fight over breaching the dams to save the salmon, Washington governor Jay Inslee and the state’s senior senator Patty Murray, both Democrats, announced on Friday they are launching a process involving both Washington state and the federal government to propose ways to replace the benefits the four lower Snake River dams provide, should the dams be broken open to help save wild salmon in those waters.
The dams, built and run by the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington state, provide reliable, low-carbon energy to the Pacific Northwest and an efficient way to get grain to Pacific ports. But, as TIME explored in a recent feature story, they have come at a considerable ecological cost and have hurt tribal traditions that rely on wild fish swimming the rivers.
The wild salmon that are able to swim above the dams are not breeding at a high enough rate to sustain the populations and are in danger of disappearing from those streams altogether. Only 20% of salmon in rivers above the dams are wild, meaning they breed in the rocky stream beds and not in a human-run hatchery. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on improving fish ladders, hatchery programs, trucking and barging fish to get around the dam system, but it hasn’t been enough.
The issue has brought together an unlikely coalition of tribal leaders who have been pushing for decades in court for the dams’ removal, sports fishing organizations, river conservation groups, and a conservative Republican congressman from Idaho who created a $33 billion spending proposal to replace the benefits the dams provide with rail and low-carbon energy investments. Those allies have so far failed to convince Democrats and the Biden White House to include the proposal to remove the dams in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate and is stalled in the House as Democrats haggle over the details of the accompanying bill of spending climate and social programs.
Read More: The Fight to Save the Salmon
But adding to the momentum for proponents of taking out the dams, the Biden Administration on Thursday joined other litigants in asking an Oregon court to pause an ongoing court battle over the survival of salmon and steelhead trying to get around federal dams in the Pacific Northwest. The agreement, if accepted by the court, would stay the litigation until the end of July 2022, and would buy more time to study the question of broader solutions like removing dams, including the four at issue in Washington state. “While it is important to balance the region’s economy and power generation, it is also time to improve conditions for Tribes that have relied on these important species since time immemorial,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement announcing the agreement.
Gov. Inslee and Sen. Murray are both approaching the question of whether large sections of the dams should be removed to help wild salmon with “open minds and without a predetermined decision,” the leaders said in a statement they put out together on Friday. “We recognize the urgency of tackling this long standing challenge as salmon runs continue to decline,” Inslee and Murray said. The two want to know if there are “reasonable means” to replace the benefits the dams currently provide and whether those steps would be “sufficient to support breach” of the dams as part of a strategy to recover wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
The two leaders want to make their recommendations public by the end of July 2022. “Every community in the Pacific Northwest knows the value and importance of our iconic salmon runs—the time is now to take decisive action,” Inslee and Murray said.
To come to a conclusion, Inslee will hire experts to collect and review existing scientific research and data. The two leaders will talk to communities in the Pacific Northwest and consult sovereign tribes that hold treaties with the U.S. government protecting their access to wild salmon, as well as businesses and farmers that use the dam system. They will also ask for written comments from the public.
While the review is going on, Murray intends to use her influential perch as a senior senator on the Senate Appropriations Committee to pressure Congress to include a requirement that the Army Corps of Engineers study breaching the dams as part of an upcoming funding bill. Such a study is typically ordered by Congress before a major action by the Army Corps is ordered. Murray will push for that requirement to be included in the upcoming 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a crucial bill that comes up every two years to fund the projects of the Army Corps.
“As Governor Inslee and Senator Murray work to provide recommendations for a salmon recovery strategy, this legislative action will importantly ensure that breaching remains on the table,” the statement said.
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