Scientists, Ratepayer Groups, and Salmon Advocates Respond to Federal-Tribal Deal on Columbia-Snake River Dams

BPA deal won't recover salmon or protect ratepayers


Bill Shake, retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, (503) 886-9721
Todd True, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 30
Sara Patton, NW Energy Coalition, (206) 621-0094

Individuals and groups that have long worked to restore abundant Columbia and Snake river salmon say today’s financial settlement between the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and three Indian tribes lacks scientific credibility and certainty for Northwest electricity ratepayers.

“This deal defies decades of salmon science that say salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake River Basin is not possible with habitat and hatchery programs alone,” said Bill Shake, former Assistant Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Instead, any scientifically sound plan must include increased spill and flow for juvenile salmon survival and removal of four outdated dams on the lower Snake River. The tribes and many others have said this in comments filed in January with the federal government opposing the plan that is the basis for today’s deal. While increased spill and flow and Snake River dam removal are not silver bullets, they are a necessary part of a larger plan. This deal suggests that salmon can recover without that action, which goes against everything the science tells us.”

The four dams create still water and impair the natural river flows young salmon need to migrate to sea. The dams also hinder the migration of adult salmon trying to return to spawn in the crystal clear, cold waters of high elevation tributaries and greatly exacerbate to the threat salmon face from global warming.

Under the agreement, BPA will pay the tribes about $1 billion for tribal hatchery and habitat programs over 10 years in exchange for the tribes’ support of the latest federal plan to manage the dams and river flows on the Columbia and Snake rivers. “Support” means the tribes must disavow their prior biological recommendations, which are steeply at odds with the federal approach. The tribes also must refrain from advocating for measures they have long said were scientifically necessary for salmon survival such as removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Over the past 15 years, a series of court rulings, backed by the tribes, has disqualified three of the last four federal dam operation plans because they failed to protect and recover Columbia and Snake river salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, court orders won by tribal, conservation and fishing groups have required dam operators to release additional water at certain times of the year to assist the migration of juvenile salmon from the rivers to the sea. Thanks to this additional river flow, federal fishery managers forecast a slight up-tick in returning spring run salmon this year. 

“This new deal would roll back recent victories improving dam operations for salmon,” said Earthjustice attorney Todd True. “The opportunity to restore these fish is rapidly slipping away. BPA and the other federal agencies under this administration have consistently been more interested in protecting the status quo than in restoring wild salmon. Today’s deal is a good example of that failed approach.” 

The money BPA will pay the tribes is aimed at restoring salmon habitat primarily below the four problem Snake River dams and funding tribal hatcheries programs. But scientific studies, including those done by tribal biologists, conclude that recovering abundant salmon populations requires unimpeded access to the thousands of stream miles of clean cold water found in Idaho.

“The billion-dollar price tag for this agreement would be enough money to remove these dams and open access to these life-saving waters,” said NW Energy Coalition executive director, Sara Patton. “By ignoring science while suggesting that it is indeed meeting ESA requirements, BPA is continuing the uncertainty that has plagued this region and is putting Northwest ratepayers further at risk.”

Added Shake, the former Fish and Wildlife Service official: “We’ve been able to toss the salmon a life ring through court-ordered water releases for the last few years but we can’t get them off life support and out of the intensive care unit until we open up the good spawning water still available up in Idaho. This deal moves us no closer to that goal.”  

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