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PNW Tribal Nations, States Sign Historic
Columbia Basin Agreement with U.S.

by Isabella Breda
Seattle Times, February 23, 2024

Billions of BPA ratepayer dollars have been spent
to save salmon, but not a single run has recovered

Lower Granite Dam in SE Washington state impounds the Lower Snake forty miles up beyond the Idaho border. Leaders of four Pacific Northwest tribal nations indigenous to the region on Friday inked a historic agreement with the U.S. that lays out the future of the operations of hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin, including the dams on the Lower Snake River.

At the White House on Friday, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes, and the states of Washington and Oregon, signed a memorandum of understanding, outlining a series of commitments from the federal government.

It's not an agreement for dam removal; in fact, removal of the Lower Snake dams, a long-running and controversial goal of tribes and other groups, is put off for years. But it's the end of an era.

"We need a lot more clean energy, but we need to develop it in a way that's socially just," Yakama Nation Chair Gerald Lewis said at the White House. "The last time energy was developed in the Columbia Basin it was done on the backs of tribal communities and tribal resources."

"Now we have an opportunity to do better and to have the tribes at the table."

Tribal nations helped draw up a road map for the future of the region's energy and salmon. Under the $1 billion-plus agreement announced in December and approved by a federal judge this month, tribes will help restore wild fish and lead in the construction of at least 1 to 3 gigawatts of clean-energy production.

The agreement stems from years of mediated negotiations in a decadeslong court battle over dam operations. A stay of litigation is in place for up to five years and could continue for as long as 10.

In a key compromise, the agreement also reduces water spilled over the dams for summer and fall run fish, including fall Chinook, one of the more robust salmon runs on the river, and a mainstay of tribal and sport fisheries. That allows the Bonneville Power Administration to sell more power from the dams into the lucrative California power market.

However, spring spill would be boosted, to help spring Chinook by providing something more like a spring freshet for young fish migrating to the sea.

It comes as climate change turns more mountain snow to rain, throwing imperiled salmon and steelhead into hot water, and straining access to a steady stream of hydropower.

Meanwhile, the BPA this month reported a net revenue loss of $102 million for the first quarter of the 2024 fiscal year due to dry winter conditions and high power prices in the Pacific Northwest.

Some river users welcome the change.

"Let's just get on with it," said Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, in an interview. "We never thought that pounding the table and saying hell no was going to get anybody anywhere."

The irrigators delivered a report to Gov. Jay Inslee this week putting a price -- $750 million -- on irrigated land values impacted by dam removal.

Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray commissioned a report on replacing the benefits of the dams -- energy, transportation and irrigation -- released in August 2022. The report estimated an infrastructure program totaling $10.1 billion to $31.3 billion could replace the dams' services.

They vowed dam removal could not happen without replacing those services first.

On Friday, Inslee said future generations -- Indigenous and non-Indigenous -- deserve to experience the joy of seeing salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

"This is only the beginning," said White House senior adviser John Podesta. "In a sense this agreement really is just a handshake ... it will take all of us committing to this partnership now and for years to come to lift the words off the page and bring this agreement to life."

The agreement is a gamble. Plaintiffs get no guarantee of dam removal and no guarantee the alternative clean energy could replace that generated by the four Lower Snake River dams, but they retain their ability to go back to court at any time.

"As Nimiipuu [Nez Perce] we are bound to the salmon and the rivers -- these are our life sources. We will not allow extinction to be an option for the salmon, nor for us," tribe Chair Shannon Wheeler said in a statement.

"The federal dams on the lower Snake and mainstem Columbia rivers have had -- and continue to have -- devastating impacts on the salmon and our people, burdening our Treaty partnership," Wheeler continued. "... Our work together here opens opportunities for new partnerships with renewable energy project developers, corporate clean energy procurement teams, policymakers, investors, and all parties interested in this historic opportunity to build a future of abundance in the Pacific Northwest."

Today, 13 runs of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommended removing the four Lower Snake dams as an "essential" step needed to rebuild the salmon and steelhead populations in the basin.

The report says that large-scale dam removal projects on the Elwha, Nooksack, Hood, Wind, White Salmon, Sandy and Rogue rivers "have all resulted in broader and quicker biological and physical benefits to local and regional riverscapes than expected."

Billions of BPA ratepayer dollars have been spent to save salmon in the basin, but not a single run has recovered.

"In the early days, our historic runs were over 20 million. Now it's estimated run this year of 124,000," Umatilla tribal leader Corinne Sams said. "We are on the brink of extinction and status quo is unacceptable. ... all we're doing is collaborating and partnering, which we should have been doing all along."

Federal agencies in charge of dam operations and salmon recovery have been sued and lost six times over operation of the dams, which a series of federal judges going back to 1994 have found imperil salmon, a violation of both the ESA and treaties with Native American tribes.

The four Lower Snake dams were the last built in the 1960s and 1970s. Together they generate on average enough power to serve a city about the size of Seattle. Irrigation on one of the pools of the Lower Snake dams also waters thousands of acres of food crops. Barge transportation through locks extends navigation from saltwater all the way to Lewiston, Idaho.

The dams eliminated or severely degraded 530 miles or 80% of the historical habitat for Chinook in the river.

"We are working hard to improve the lives of our tribal members, but it is difficult when the primary source of wealth -- the natural resources of the Columbia River and the landscape -- has been taken from us," said Jonathan Smith, chair for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon.

"But our people are resilient. They never give up. We do everything in our power to recover our first foods and our resources. And that is why we joined our fellow sovereigns and drafted" the agreement.

Isabella Breda
Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.
PNW Tribal Nations, States Sign Historic Columbia Basin Agreement with U.S.
Seattle Times, February 23, 2024

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