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Biden Administration, Tribes: Dam Breaching
on Table 'As Soon as Practical'

by Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, December 14, 2023

BPA estimates that the agreement will have an annual average rate impact of 0.7%

Graphic: Wild Chinook runs to the Lower Snake River as counted at the highest dam in place at the time. (1961-2020) Federal and tribal leaders say the deal forged between the federal government and plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit puts breaching of the lower Snake River dams "on the table when practical."

But the proposed Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative includes "an expedited effort to make the investments necessary to enable breach to move forward with urgency -- for example, two fish generations -- to address extinction risks and facilitate recovery," they said.

Earthjustice, the nonprofit law firm representing environmental groups, in a press release defined two chinook salmon generations as approximately eight years.

The authority to breach the dams remains with Congress, the officials said.

The agreement, announced Dec. 14, includes more than $1 billion in new federal investments in wild fish restoration over the next decade and an "unprecedented" 10-year break from decades-long litigation against the federal government's operation of its dams in the Pacific Northwest.

The agreement was filed in the federal district court in Oregon and sets commitments made by the federal government and implemented through a memorandum of understanding between the U.S.; the states of Oregon and Washington; the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama Tribes; and environmental nonprofit organizations.

District Court Judge Michael Simon gave all parties until Dec. 29 to enter a response to the government's motion to stay. Simon gave the government and plaintiffs until Jan. 12 to respond to those filings.

Administration commitments

Pathway to breaching

Tribal leaders said the agreement is a pathway to breaching the dams.

"We in the tribes are rolling the dice here that all of these services are able to advance to a point where congressional leaders and the administrations can consider that and take the necessary actions to get to the breach," said a tribal leader, speaking on background during a White House press call. "We know exactly what the fish need and this is a path toward fulfilling what needs to be done, on our way to breaching."

"We know from the NOAA report and other science that breaching the four lower Snake River dams will help the fish -- that is a difficult issue that requires the federal government's fearless leadership," a tribal leader said. "But there is much we can do to get started while we are determining how best to address the dams. Today's agreement allows the work to proceed while charting a course forward toward abundant and healthy fish populations."

The agreement "(puts) dam removal on the table as soon as practical," said a tribal leader.

'Healthy and abundant'

A tribal leader said the accounting standard to define "healthy, harvestable, abundant numbers" should be consistent between the federal government and tribes.

Thirteen species are threatened or endangered, and none has recovered, said a White House official.

"We're in a situation where we need to walk before we run, but what we want to aim at is running and get back substantial runs in the Columbia River," the official said.

A Washington state official said the agreement is not enough for the salmon, which need support throughout their life cycle, including when they're in the Pacific Ocean.

"Climate change and ocean acidification are threatening them during that part of their life cycle," the official said. "We need to do many things, not just this, to keep these salmon runs having a chance to come back. ... We've got a lot of work to do."

Corinne Sams, chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, estimated that salmon populations dropped from more than 17 million when the treaties of 1855 were signed between tribes and the U.S., to 1.25 million today.

"Our Tribes transferred millions of acres of land to the United States with the promise that the fish and wildlife would remain forever abundant for our livelihood, sustenance, ceremonies, and our economical viability." Sams said. "The legal requirements mandate the U.S. government do everything in its power and resources to restore these sacred populations in perpetuity."

Is breaching inevitable?

The Biden administration has "been clear throughout this process" breaching is a congressional prerogative, and that Congress will have to face the dam breaching question, the White House official said.

"They need to face it with not just a sense of what might be possible, but in a context in which not only the studies have been done, but the work begins to be done to provide additional, clean renewable resources that the region's going to need," the official said. "We can work in partnership to build the power systems, transmission, the transportation that's going to be beneficial not only in the long-term but in the short-term, and give Congress the ability to make a reasoned decision about that. ..."

The Washington state official said the state supports developing answers to "pivotal" questions about replacing the dams' electrical, irrigation, transportation and recreation needs before Congress would ever authorize breaching.

"I don't think this agreement makes anything inevitable, but it does make it much more likely that we'll have the information we need to make good decisions," the state official said. "I think it is inevitable we'll make a better decision when we get these studies done, because we'll know what the heck we're doing."

Related Sites:
Joint Motion to Extend Stay US District Court, 8/31/23
Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game v. NAT. MARINE FISHERIES US District Court Oregon, 3/28/94

Matthew Weaver, Field Reporter, Spokane
Biden Administration, Tribes: Dam Breaching on Table 'As Soon as Practical'
Capital Press, December 14, 2023

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