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The Government Just Took a Big Step Toward Breaching Salmon-Killing Dams

What just happened: The Biden administration released a promising plan for restoring endangered salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. It includes more than half a billion dollars in new federal funding and commits the U.S. to help Native tribes build clean energy projects that could replace the power supplied by the lower Snake River dams.

Why it matters: The Snake River dams are one of the greatest threats to the survival of Northwest salmon. Losing these fish threatens ecosystems, tribal cultures, and regional economies.

For three decades, Earthjustice has represented fishing, environmental, and renewable energy groups in court battles to protect fish in the Columbia and Snake rivers from harmful dams. The Biden administration’s announcement puts us on a path toward breaching four dams on the lower Snake River — which the science shows is the best and only way to prevent extinction and rebuild healthy populations. We are celebrating this historic step forward, and we will continue to push the Biden administration and Congress to finish the job. In conjunction with the states of Oregon and Washington and the Nez Perce, Yakama, Warm Springs, and Umatilla Tribes, we have agreed to put our litigation on a multi-year pause as long as implementation of the plan moves ahead.

Why Snake River salmon are at risk

  • The problem: Four dams in Washington block salmon passage along the lower Snake River, which is a major migration route linking millions of acres of pristine salmon spawning habitat in central Idaho to the Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean.
  • No time to waste: If we don’t act now, the remaining salmon in the Snake River face extinction. The science is clear that removal of the four lower Snake River dams is the single best thing we can do to save salmon from extinction and restore their populations to abundance.

How this plan represents progress

The Biden administration’s commitments include:

  • Pledges of funding and expert help to replace the energy, transportation, irrigation, and recreation services of the Lower Snake River dams.
  • A clean energy and tribal sovereignty vision: The plan includes investments in a new Tribal clean energy program to develop 1,000-3,000 megawatts of clean, renewable, salmon-friendly power to replace the power provided by the dams.
  • Increased funding for habitat restoration and other actions benefiting salmon, steelhead, and other native fish and shellfish.

A decades-long fight

  • Behind the breakthrough: Nearly all the salmon in the Columbia basin are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This status requires the federal government to ensure that its actions — including federal dam operations — don’t harm these fish.
  • Taking the fight to court: By failing to protect salmon from harmful dam operations, the government is violating the law. In 1992, Earthjustice began fighting in court to compel it to obey the law.
  • Over three decades, three different federal judges have declared illegal six different federal dam operation plans because they illegally failed to protect endangered salmon.
  • A pause in litigation, then a step forward: Earthjustice, alongside the State of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe, challenged yet another flawed dam operation plan finalized under the Trump administration in 2020. That challenge has been stayed since 2021 to allow negotiations with the Biden administration that led to the new actions and commitments.

What comes next

  • Looking at the long term: The Biden administration commitments lay the foundation for dam breach, and salmon and steelhead recovery. The commitments respond to the vision spelled out in a roadmap document called the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative (CBRI) also released on Dec. 14. The CBRI was developed by four Native Tribes that hold treaty rights to healthy, harvestable salmon runs and ecosystems, plus the states of Washington and Oregon.
  • Bold vision: The CBRI explicitly calls for breaching the Snake River dams within two fish generations.
  • To achieve this goal, we need Congress to act: The Biden administration has the authority to provide planning and funding to replace the dams’ services. However, breaching the dams will ultimately require action from Congress. We need you to join us in telling Congress to support the Biden commitments, the CBRI, and dam removal.
A large concrete dam in a canyon
Lower Granite Dam. One of the four lower Snake River dams that Earthjustice is fighting to remove. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)