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Lower Snake River dam removals now hinge on energy, irrigation replacements

Removing the four Lower Snake River Dams is necessary to save salmon, but the benefits of dams much be replaced, Washington Governor Jay Inslee said.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) Tearing down dams for the sake of salmon has become a hot topic around the Pacific Northwest, with federal recommendations to remove the Klamath River dams handed down this past week while efforts to remove the Winchester Dam had a day in court. In the background, however, another government report came out in support of removing the four Lower Snake River Dams — but with a catch.

A final report issued Aug. 25, by Washington Governor Jay Inslee and U.S. Senator Patty Murray recommended replacing all four Snake River dams before breaching them to save salmon, particularly when it comes to reliable and carbon-free electricity.

The Joint federal-state process comes nearly a month after fishing and conservation groups joined with the state of Oregon, Nez Perce Tribe and the United States to ask a federal judge to extend a stay of litigation in the 21-year-old case seeking to eliminate the four dams.

The lawsuit, initially filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2001, now also involves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and involves claims of repeatedly failing to construct a plan to rescue endangered Chinook salmon. As it stands, the salmon cannot travel upstream from the dams, and defendants have acknowledged there is no other feasible way for the endangered fish do so without removing the dams.

Plaintiffs currently include the National Wildlife Federation, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Steelhead and Salmon United, Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, Salmon for All, Columbia Riverkeeper, NW Energy Coalition and Federation of Fly Fishers.

“We see that the stay in litigation is an opportunity for the Biden administration to work with tribes, members of Congress, industry leaders, and communities to develop a comprehensive plan of action,” said Jacqueline Koch, regional communications manager of the National Wildlife Federation, in an email. “Yet this plan must include actions to replace the services provided by the four Lower Snake River dams so that we can remove the dams and restore a free-flowing Lower Snake River.”

Koch added: “If the Biden administration does not take timely and necessary action to recover abundant salmon populations, the plaintiffs are prepared to ask the court to lift the stay and return to litigation and their request for an injunction.”

In July, the Biden administration released two reports acknowledging the need to breach dams on the Lower Snake River to restore salmon and steelhead populations while exploring ways to replace the power generation. The draft report, “Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead,” was prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) with the aid of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and experts from the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon.

According to the NOAA report, the current abundance and productivity of salmon and steelhead fish are at dramatically reduced levels, where four out of 16 spawning stocks are now extinct. Seven others are now listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, including one reliant on a captive breeding program. Of the remaining five stocks, only one retains historical population numbers.

Salmon isn’t the only iconic species at risk, either. Southern Resident killer whales, a species of orca that live in the Salish Sea near Seattle, are critically endangered, in part because they are starving for Chinook salmon.

“The short-term outlook for most interior Columbia stocks is grim,” the NOAA report found. “Recent abundance trends (where data is available) are negative, while productivity values are below replacement. The extinction risk from demographic collapse is moderate to high for all ESA-listed stocks, as is the risk of evolutionary simplification due to reduced adaptive capacity, all resulting from small population size.”

Declining salmon also imperiled Indigenous tribes’ ability to fish for subsistence — a major condition of their agreements to cede their land to the U.S. government and a right guaranteed in the treaties memorializing those deals. Dave Johnson, manager for the Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries Department, underscored that point at a January 2020 hearing on dam removal.

“It always seems as if somebody else’s livelihood is more sacrosanct than others,” Johnson said. “And we are the only ones with a guaranteed livelihood. In the treaties it said, ‘You’re always going to have that livelihood.’ The U.S. got millions and millions of acres of land, yet we haven’t really had any harvest for years.”

But while the coalition awaits word from Congress, Inslee has made his thoughts well known on whether dam removal is necessary and useful and what needs to occur before doing so.

“We are adamant that in any circumstance where the Lower Snake River dams would be breached, the replacement and mitigation of their benefits must be pursued before decommissioning and breaching,” the Inslee report said adding that dam removal “must provide opportunity for all the communities that would bear these impacts.”

The cited impacts of dam removal primarily revolve around the production of clean, carbon-free energy, but they also extend to farming irrigation, agricultural production, transportation and outdoor recreation. However, Inslee’s report also states how clean energy provided by the dams only constitutes around 3.4% of “the new generating and transmission capacity that our region must build.”

“As such, replacing that capacity does not meaningfully alter what we must already accomplish,” the report found. “Even so, breach is not a feasible option in the near-term.”

Erin Farris-Olsen, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, said the solutions here are possible.

“We have the technology to address the energy, there are solutions to water and irrigation, there are alternatives to transportation," she said. "And we’ve also seen local communities that are open and not completely resistant to changes."

Farris-Olsen added: “This is not about breaching dams for the sake of breaching dams. This is about saving salmon and having thriving communities. We have the opportunity to have a future where both communities and salmon thrive together, and that’s what we’re going to be pushing for.”

Regardless of whether the state finds ways to replace these benefits, the decision of dam removal — and paying for it — lies with Congress. Should dam removal take place, it would be one of the largest projects of its kind in U.S. history alongside the proposed removal of the four Klamath River Dams and the 2012 removal of Washington state’s Elwha Dam.

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