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A Bipartisan Breakthrough for Endangered Pacific Northwest Salmon

May 6, 2021
By
Danny Folds Legislative Counsel

Two members of Congress are collaborating across the aisle to confront an extinction crisis unfolding in their backyard.

After decades of decline, endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest may finally have a lifeline. Two members of Congress shed partisanship in favor of collaboration to confront an extinction crisis unfolding in their backyard.

On May 4, Oregon Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer joined his Idaho Republican colleague Rep. Mike Simpson in calling for immediate federal legislative action to address major interlocking problems stemming from the collapse of the once-mighty salmon runs of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Scientists have long said the single best thing that can be done to prevent the extinction of these iconic species — and the related decline of Southern Resident Orcas — is to breach four outdated dams on the lower Snake River.

In the past, some have viewed this issue as a third rail in regional politics that few leaders would touch. However, in the last 20 years, the utility of the lower Snake River dams has dramatically declined. Shipping on the lower Snake River has fallen sharply — not to mention current shipping is deeply subsidized by taxpayers — and the explosion of cheap renewable energy has made it increasingly affordable to replace the power provided by these dams. More importantly, the salmon have continued their spiral towards extinction, which would be not only an ecological disaster but a cultural and human rights catastrophe for Native American Tribes for whom salmon are a way of life.

During a one-hour webinar, the two congressmen called for bipartisan support for investments in infrastructure, clean energy and communities, including restoring the lower Snake River and removing the four dams there. With climate change placing ever greater pressure on salmon and orcas, a transition from the outdated hydropower provided by these dams to other forms of clean energy is essential. We applaud the representatives’ honest acknowledgment of the urgent need for federal action to stem the staggering environmental, economic, and social costs of continued inaction.

Why do salmon matter?

Culturally, salmon and steelhead symbolize the strength and vitality of the Northwest. Drive through towns and cities from Seattle to the Tri-Cities to deep inland places like Riggins, Idaho, and you’ll see statues, public art and murals of salmon. They are critical to the ways of life of Columbia-Snake River Basin communities and tribes.

Biologically, salmon loss spells disaster for myriad species, including the endangered Southern Resident orcas and black bears and grizzlies who rely on them for food. Some studies predict that the Snake River salmon population will shrink by half by 2025 if we don’t act now.

Economically, the math is appalling. Federal agencies have spent more than $17 billion in taxpayer funds on salmon recovery measures over the past three decades — all without significantly improving salmon numbers or ever seriously addressing the undeniable cause of their swift and persistent decline: the dams blocking their passage and warming the river to fatal temperatures.

These problems are not new to anyone. State-level and regional leaders have repeatedly committed to considering the crisis, and federal agencies have repeatedly outlined options for recovering the endangered salmon, but all have avoided the elephant in the room, river restoration and dam removal, citing the need for further investment in plans that have failed and further conversation about problems that are well-documented.

Back out the way we came

Fishermen, tribes, farmers, recreational guides, barge operators, utilities, and the general public all have a stake in what happens to the Columbia and Snake rivers. It’s no wonder that crafting a solution meeting everyone’s needs is a daunting task.

Representatives Blumenauer and Simpson are stepping into the role of true leaders by addressing a full range of interests and investments right out of the gate. From Rep. Simpson’s initial proposal to the congressmens’ statements in their webinar, it is clear their bipartisan effort will not just restore endangered salmon — it will also invest in clean energy, upgrade transportation services, honor Tribal treaties, and improve irrigation for the region’s farmers.

Including these measures in the infrastructure package that Congress will consider this summer could fundamentally redirect the downward spiral of salmon in the Columbia Basin. Turning things around with significant and strategic investment in Columbia Basin infrastructure and communities means a brighter future for the entire region.

What Earthjustice is focused on

Decades of government and political inertia has left these salmon — and all who rely on them — in freefall. In the last twenty years, Earthjustice has gone to court five times to challenge the illegal operation of the Columbia Hydropower Operations. Every single time, the courts have agreed with us, stating that the federal government has failed in its duty under the Endangered Species Act to protect salmon and steelhead that are edging toward oblivion. In the last round, the court ordered the federal government to take a hard, sober look at the dams and urged the government to consider removal. The Trump administration instead rubber-stamped a status quo plan that fails to take the necessary steps to address this extinction crisis. So we had no choice but to return to court, along with the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon, to once again take a stand for the salmon.

What we need more urgently than ever is for our senators and members of Congress to step forward and develop a comprehensive solution that will secure a future with abundant salmon, clean energy and prosperous communities, and that’s just what Reps. Blumenauer and Simpson have done. We applaud them for breaking the congressional silence on this dire situation and committing to secure a better future for the Northwest that rightly includes breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

We urge all members of the Northwest delegation to work with Representatives Blumenauer and Simpson to support a comprehensive solution that would restore salmon runs, bolster clean energy, strengthen the economy, and honor our treaties and commitments to Native American Tribes.

While we certainly don’t agree with everything that is in Rep. Simpson’s initial proposal, we are ready to work with others to find common ground and a way forward, one that fairly and realistically meets a full range of needs and concerns and gives salmon the best opportunity to return in abundance.

A truly equitable and sustainable future for the Northwest means ensuring that we are all able to move forward together and that our environmental laws remain strong. 

We will continue to work with all members of Congress who are interested in a solution that recovers salmon, meets Tribal treaty obligations, provides clean and affordable energy, and supports fishing and agricultural communities.

A sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in Little Redfish Lake Creek, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho.

The biggest threat to the survival of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia/Snake River salmon is not an act of nature. It’s man-made dams, which create barriers to salmon migration to and from the ocean.

Neil Ever Osborne / Save Our Wild Salmon / iLCP