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Commentaries and editorials

Agreement Could Pave Way
for Breach of Snake River Dams

by Tony Tekaroniake Evans
Idaho Mountain Express, Decmber 20, 2023

"For too long we have seen the federal government try to do the minimum
amount necessary to pass legal muster under the Endangered Species Act."

-- Jonathan W. Smith Sr., Warm Springs Tribal Council chairman

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 24, 2018, provided by the Center for Whale Research, a baby orca whale is being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. The new orca died soon after being born. (David Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research via AP) The White House announced on Dec. 14 a historic agreement with Pacific Northwest tribes, states and conservation groups to move forward on a path that could lead to the removal of four Lower Snake River dams to save endangered and threatened salmon.

The plan, known as the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, calls for a 10-year moratorium on litigation after decades of lawsuits against hydropower operations on the Snake River that have long been an impediment to migrating salmon. That includes endangered sockeye that spawn in the Sawtooth Valley north of Ketchum after a 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean.

During the moratorium, the federal Bonneville Power Administration will spend $300 million to "restore native fish and their habitats throughout the Columbia River Basin," with added measures to "increase the autonomy of States and Tribes to use these funds," the White House stated in a press release.

The agreement will also "facilitate the build-out of at least one to three gigawatts of tribally-sponsored renewable energy production," the White House said, intended to help replace existing hydropower energy production if dam removal were to be authorized -- a step that would require and act of Congress. The Biden-Harris administration also said in its news release that it committed to fund or conduct studies on how irrigation, transportation and recreation services enabled by Snake River dams could be supplanted if dam removal were to be authorized.

Although the Biden-Harris plan fell short of calling for dam removal, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, issued a news release on Dec. 14 calling the litigation agreement "useless" because it took place behind closed doors, between parties who wanted the same result, "to tear out our dams, and it completely excluded Idahoans who rely on the river system for its energy, transportation, agriculture, and recreation benefits."

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, introduced a comprehensive plan in 2021 to remove the dams and provide funding to address any negative impacts. Idaho Conservation League Executive Director Mitch Cutter said the Biden-Harris plan goes one step further.

"It's significant as the first plan to replace [hydropower] services. Simpson's plan was only a proposal, but now this replacement is funded with real resources," Cutter said.

The agreement was filed in Federal District Court in Oregon and establishes commitments made by the federal government and implemented through a memorandum of understanding between the federal government, Oregon, Washington and multiple Native American tribes. The tribes included the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama Tribes, identified as the "six sovereigns." The agreement also included environmental and nonprofit organizations represented by Earthjustice.

"Leaders across the region have long recognized that inaction on the Columbia-Snake River would doom our iconic species, do irreversible harm to Tribal communities, and diminish our region's economic future," said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in the White House press release about the plan. "This agreement between the U.S. government and the Six Sovereigns and NGO plaintiffs is that path forward. It is a durable, comprehensive product of determined leadership by all parties to help secure the long term economic, energy, and salmon recovery needs of our region."

The Columbia River Basin, which includes Idaho, drains an area nearly the size of Texas and covers portions of seven Western states and one province in Canada.

According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 sockeye returned annually up the Salmon River to the Sawtooth Valley and Payette River Basin in the 1880s. Dam building that began in the 1900s reduced their range and population until, in 1992, only one -- called Lonesome Larry -- made it back to Redfish Lake.

Billions have been spent on salmon recovery, with limited results. According to the Department of Fish and Game, sockeye runs to the Sawtooth Basin have varied widely in the last 10 years, ranging from a low of 17 in 2019 to a high of 1,516 in 2014.

(bluefish notes: From 1 million hatchery reared smolts released, only 144 returned as adults in 2023.
They were accompanied by 30 natural origin Sockeye reared in the Stanley Basin. See Count the Fish
Many Western tribes have called for dam removal, which would take an act of Congress. Several are celebrating the new development, which honors disregarded treaty rights.

"For too long we have seen the federal government try to do the minimum amount necessary to pass legal muster under the Endangered Species Act," said Jonathan Smith Sr., chairman of the Warm Springs Tribal Council, in the news release. "This minimum effort approach has resulted in our fish populations limping along at depressed levels, oftentimes near-extinction and leaving us without enough salmon for our ceremonies, culture, and subsistence."

Along with the other plaintiffs represented by Earthjustice, the Idaho Conservation League will use the stay in litigation to ensure that the federal government carries out its commitments and implements more of the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative.

"This partnership between the Six Sovereigns, conservation groups, and the federal government is unprecedented," Cutter said. "We are relying on the Biden administration to ensure that all federal agencies, including the Bonneville Power Administration, are aligned and urgently implementing the commitment."

The Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative agreement followed a Sept. 27 White House memorandum that stated "the salmon, steelhead, and other native fish populations in the Columbia River Basin are essential to the culture, economy, and way of life of Tribal Nations in the region and Indigenous peoples in Canada, and also provide an important food source for endangered orca, which are sacred to many Tribal Nations in the region."

The memorandum, from President Joe Biden, cited an 1855 treaty that guaranteed the rights of four tribal nations in the basin to "harvest fish on their reservations and at all usual and accustomed places," when an estimated 7.5 to 16 million adult salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia Basin each year.

Biden stated in the memorandum that actions since 1855, including the federal government's construction and operation of dams in the Columbia Basin, have severely depleted fish populations. A total of 13 salmon and steelhead populations have been listed as threatened or endangered, the memo said, and other populations of those fish have been extirpated. Other native fish populations have also declined.

"It is the policy of my administration to work with the Congress and with Tribal Nations, States, local governments, and stakeholders to pursue effective, creative, and durable solutions, informed by Indigenous knowledge," Biden stated.

Tony Tekaroniake Evans
Agreement Could Pave Way for Breach of Snake River Dams
Idaho Mountain Express, Decmber 20, 2023

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