Breakthrough in 20+ Year Legal Battle Over Fate of Snake River Salmon

Federal agencies in the Biden administration have finally agreed to seek a long-term comprehensive solution that restores Snake River salmon.

For more than two decades, the Nez Perce Tribe, conservation, fishing, and renewable energy groups, and the state of Oregon have been in court fighting to save endangered wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin. These fish are iconic to the region and way of the life in the Pacific Northwest. Nothing has been more devastating to these species than four dams that impede a 140-mile section of their migration on the lower Snake River. Juvenile salmon die by the thousands trying to migrate past these dams to the ocean, and the reservoirs behind each dam create a salmon killing field of hot water and predators made worse by advancing climate heating. Scientists have said for years that breaching these dams is the single best thing we can do to restore these fish. And recent analyses highlight the urgent need to act now — many populations of Snake River salmon and steelhead are at the threshold of extinction.

While the courts have continuously and consistently found the operation of the dams to be illegal, the agencies that own and operate the dams have so far refused to take a serious look at a comprehensive solution that includes breaching the dam and investing in replacement clean energy and other services. After more than 20 years of losing legal battles, federal agencies in the Biden administration have finally agreed to look for a long-term comprehensive solution that can restore Snake River salmon.

Earthjustice, on behalf of our fishing and conservation clients, agreed to a pause in litigation challenging the latest federal plan for dam operations on the Snake and Columbia rivers until July of 2022 in order to develop and begin implementing this kind of solution. We challenged the latest plan, issued by the Trump administration in late 2020, because it conflicts with both the best available science and the laws regarding what the government must do to protect Snake River salmon and steelhead. Now, we have an opportunity to work with the Biden administration – and our longtime partners, the Nez Perce Tribe and state of Oregon — to finally resolve the salmon crisis the lower Snake River dams have created. But we must all act quickly this year.

The day after the administration announced its commitment to a comprehensive solution, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee debuted their joint initiative for salmon restoration in the Snake River. While they made clear they do not have a predetermined outcome in mind, they committed to building on existing data, rather than starting from scratch, and to taking a careful look at how to replace the services provided by the four lower Snake River dams. They have stated they will complete their effort by the summer of 2022. This initiative has the potential to complement the commitment of the Biden administration and finally authorize dam breaching – widely understood to be the most critical step to restore Snake River salmon and steelhead. They also committed to identify the studies and investments required to ensure that if the dams are breached, the Northwest’s energy, transportation and agriculture infrastructure is stronger than ever for people and communities who rely on it.

The science is clear: There is no more time to waste studying whether the crisis is urgent or whether dam removal is necessary.

  • Dams have turned the Columbia and Snake rivers from one of the greatest salmon-producing river systems in the world to a deadly gauntlet of dams that yields sick and dying salmon, weakening the very foundation of the region’s ecosystems and economy.
  • Lethal stretches of hot water radiate out from the dams, which create slackwater reservoirs that make safe river passage nearly impossible for the juveniles migrating to the ocean to mature, or the adults heading upstream to spawn.
  • In 2015, river temperatures were so high that more than 90% of all adult sockeye salmon were killed while returning to the Columbia Basin, and Snake River steelhead returns this year were the lowest ever recorded.
  • Recent scientific analyses confirm that many Snake River salmon and steelhead populations are on the threshold of extinction, and these analyses show that in five years the majority of these populations will be at this tipping point.

The path to restoring healthy salmon populations and honoring tribal treaty rights is also clear.

  • 20 years and $17 billion worth of inadequate government efforts to protect salmon show that we cannot pretend to expect a different outcome if we just try what we have done before. The Trump plan prescribed more of the same approach that has failed for decades, spelling extinction in short order and at a high price.
  • Breaching the four federal dams on the Lower Snake is essential to recover salmon and restore the river system. Experts, including scientists, economists, and energy analysts, have concluded that replacing the dams with a portfolio of renewable energy substitutes would benefit the Northwest economy, environment, and tribes and communities.
  • A recent poll of the Washington state public revealed widespread support for lower Snake River dam removal when accompanied by investments in renewable energy, transportation improvements, and irrigation.

The recent litigation pause in National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service also reduces the immediate harm to salmon from the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers while allowing us all to work towards a long-term solution.

  • The agreement the court approved in October covers operation of Columbia River Basin dams for the coming year and includes crucial protections to help migrating salmon, such as increased spill of water over the top of the dams to help juvenile fish survive passage over these deadly obstacles.
  • These are temporary, emergency measures to afford these species incremental survival benefits, however. They are not enough to prevent the continued decline of these fish toward extinction.

Congress and the administration cannot kick the can down the road.

  • We welcome the clear commitments by Northwest elected leaders and the Biden administration to restore the Columbia and Snake river salmon and honor their legal obligations to both Northwest tribes and endangered species, but the time to act is now — in 2022. We will not rest until Congress has authorized Snake River dam breaching, because to do anything less delays justice and puts success out of reach.
  • Climate change and equity have been two of this administration’s greatest priorities, and the urgent need for breaching the Lower Snake River dams presents a clear opportunity to demonstrate how strongly the administration values these principles. Failing to support dam breaching would mean signing off on the extinction of Columbia River basin salmon and the continuing violation of our solemn promises to Native American tribes.
  • We look forward to working with the administration and Congress to ensure that legislation that authorizes the breach of these four dams, sets a timeline for doing so, and makes other necessary investments is achieved in 2022, securing both a resilient future for the Northwest and a blueprint for the nation on how to achieve equitable, sustainable, and multi-benefit transitions that bring diverse stakeholders forward together.

Todd joined Earthjustice in 1987 as one of two attorneys who opened the Northwest regional office. He has handled numerous cases under the federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and National Forest Management Act as well as the Washington State Shorelines Management Act, Forest Practices Act, and Water Resources Act. Todd has represented clients before the U.S. Supreme Court and federal and state appellate and trial courts.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.

The Lower Granite Dam is one of the four Lower Snake River dams Earthjustice is fighting to remove.
The Lower Granite Dam is one of the four Lower Snake River dams Earthjustice is fighting to remove. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)