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Commentaries and editorials

Snake River Still
Deemed Endangered

by Eric Barker
La Grande Observer, April 22, 2023

Breaching would make it more difficult for farmers
to withdraw irrigation water from Ice Harbor Pool.

Graphic: Wild Chinook and Steelhead runs to the Lower Snake River as counted at the highest dam in place at the time. (1961-2021) LEWISTON, Idaho -- The Snake River remains one of the nation's most endangered, according to a national environmental group, but it fell two spots on the organization's annual ranking.

American Rivers placed the Snake in the number four spot of its top 10 list, citing ongoing threats to salmon and steelhead. The Snake, which frequently makes the list, occupied the number two slot last year and was named the most endangered river in 2021.

Kyle Smith, director of the group's effort to restore the Snake, said it slipped two spots because of budding momentum for breaching the four lower Snake River dams, a salmon recovery solution favored by many scientists.

Last year NOAA fisheries said the fish that are listed as threatened and endangered can't be recovered to healthy and harvestable levels without breaching one or more of the dams in eastern Washington. The leadership of the American Fisheries Society also backed breaching as the solution that gives wild salmon and steelhead the best odds at recovery.

That action would restore the river to its free-flowing state and dramatically shorten the time it takes juvenile fish to reach the Pacific Ocean. According to some studies, breaching, combined with other actions, would boost returns by four-fold.

But breaching would come at a steep cost that includes the end of tug-and-barge transportation of grain between Lewiston and downriver ports, the elimination of about 900 average megawatts of hydroelectricity generated at the four dams, and it would make it more difficult for farmers near the Tri-Cities to withdraw irrigation water from Ice Harbor Pool.

Breaching has not been endorsed by the federal government or by Congress. But as Smith noted, it has gained backers in recent years. In 2021, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, unveiled a $33 billion concept centered on breaching the dams, investing in affected communities and industries and reshaping the energy and transportation infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest. Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, both Democrats from Washington, also said breaching is the surest way to recover the fish. But they stopped short of full endorsement, saying the hydropower, transportation and irrigation made possible by the dams must be replaced before they are removed.

The Biden administration is negotiating with the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon and a coalition of environmental groups involved in a long running lawsuit over the dams and their effect on Snake River salmon and steelhead, and breaching is among the solutions being discussed. Last month, President Biden said he is committed to working with tribes, Simpson, Murray and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell to recover the fish.

"There are a lot of good things happening for the Snake between Rep. Simpson's white paper, the Gov. Inslee and Senator Murray report and the recent commitment by the Biden administration to find a solution," said Smith.

The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is the country's most endangered river. It occupied the top spot last year as well. The group listed Montana's Clark Fork River at No. 5, saying it is threatened by pollution from dioxin and heavy metal pollution coming from a shuttered pulp mill near Missoula.

Eric Barker
Snake River Still Deemed Endangered
La Grande Observer, April 22, 2023

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