The record-shattering heat wave in the Pacific Northwest has added a new level of urgency for fishing and conservation groups who returned to federal court in Oregon today seeking more spill from dams on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers to aid the migration of endangered salmon and steelhead.
Earthjustice, on behalf of a coalition of fishing and conservation groups, is seeking more water to be released starting next spring to help endangered salmon populations navigate a series of dams in the Columbia and Snake River basins. Increasing spill helps flush juvenile fish along their perilous river migration to reach the ocean where they mature. The groups are also seeking lowered reservoir levels to help speed fish migration through reservoirs that are routinely too hot. The groups together acknowledge this court-action is an emergency stop-gap measure and not enough alone to prevent the trend of these fish toward extinction.
In this case, Earthjustice represents American Rivers, Idaho Rivers United, Institute for Fisheries Resources, NW Energy Coalition, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Conservation League, and Fly Fishers International. The State of Oregon also filed a parallel motion for injunctive relief today and the Nez Perce Tribe is supporting these motions.
Statements from lawyers and plaintiffs:
“Right now we’re back in court asking for another stop-gap measure to slow the trend toward extinction of these fish,” said Todd True, Earthjustice attorney. “The Endangered Species Act is a critical safety net for these fish in the courts. But what we need to stop this extinction crisis in our backyards is leadership from the Biden administration, our senators, and members of Congress to quickly build on the work of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the Nez Perce Tribe, and efforts already underway by Idaho Rep. Simpson, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.”
“We deserve better,” said Liz Hamilton, Executive Director, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “Those of us who fish have been failed at every turn. In this moment of dire need we are presented with an historic opportunity to save these fish. We can’t let our legacy be extinction.”
“Energy system impacts from granting this injunctive relief can be addressed, in part, with new hybrid renewable energy resources like wind and solar coupled with storage, flexible demand, and energy efficiency,” said Nancy Hirsh, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition. “In addition, the West has an excess of solar power during the spring and summer months, and we see a clear opportunity for Bonneville Power Administration to utilize these resources as part of its salmon recovery strategy.”
“Columbia and Snake river salmon and orcas are in crisis,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director. “We need an injunction to keep the Army Corps and Bonneville Power Administration from driving salmon to extinction. But we also need Northwest leaders like Senator Cantwell and Senator Wyden to support long-term solutions that remove Snake River dams and invest in truly clean energy and river communities. That’s how we’ll recover abundant salmon runs.”
“This is the latest in a long line of challenges to the Columbia River System of Operations, and while we have been successful every single time in court, we believe that true success in this effort will be through collaborative and expansive legislation, initiated by Congressman Simpson, that ensures each stakeholder in the river system is made whole, and Idaho’s rivers, once the world’s greatest salmon runs, are again full of wild fish,” said Nic Nelson, Executive Director, Idaho Rivers United.
“Columbia River salmon are facing an existential crisis due to this year’s record-shattering heatwave and the perennial challenges they face,” said Sarah Bates, Acting Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies, Prairies, and Pacific Region. “Although this litigation is important, it underscores the need for the Northwest delegation and the Biden administration to center the region’s Tribes and build off Congressman Mike Simpson’s visionary framework to invest in Northwest jobs, save wild salmon, and restore the lower Snake River.”
“Fish need a river if they are going to survive. The plan proposed by the former Trump administration fails on all counts,” said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. “We are seeking drastic changes to how federal agencies operate these dams. The law and the science are clear. If the people of the Northwest are going to save salmon, we are going to have to break away from the status quo.”
“Our wild salmon, steelhead, and orca swim at the brink of extinction, and we must act to restore the Snake River. We have long needed a comprehensive solution that honors treaties with Tribes, recovers abundant wild salmon, and invests in keeping communities whole,” said Bill Arthur, Chair of the Sierra Club’s Snake/Columbia River Salmon Campaign. “Climate change and warming waters add urgency for stronger actions. The request for more spill and reservoir drawdown are necessary near-term actions for our endangered fish. The risk and uncertainty are growing for salmon, for utilities and our communities making a comprehensive solution essential.”
“Salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers are in crisis. Northwest tribes and salmon-dependent communities have been inequitably bearing the burden as dam operations and climate change drive salmon closer to extinction,” said Wendy McDermott, director of the Columbia River and Puget Sound basins for American Rivers. “With soaring temperatures putting additional stress on endangered salmon, short-term measures like additional spill are essential to their survival. We must also take bold and urgent action to build a better future in the Northwest that includes healthy and abundant salmon runs. That means heeding the calls of the Nez Perce Tribe, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and the National Congress of American Indians for a comprehensive solution that invests in salmon and river restoration including removing the four lower Snake River dams, strengthens the region and honors treaties and commitments to Native people.”
“Investing in restoring salmon in the Columbia Basin, once the largest salmon-producing river system in the world, means investing in the return of a multi-billion dollar ocean fishery that once supported tens of thousands of jobs,” said Glen Spain, NW Regional Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the west coast’s largest trade association of commercial fishing families. “But we can be the generation that restores these mighty salmon runs — and there are now plenty of good ideas on the table for how to do it.”
The Columbia River Basin was once the greatest salmon-producing river system in the world. But all remaining salmon on its largest tributary, the Snake River, are now facing extinction. Four aging dams in Washington — Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite — block passage along the lower Snake River, a major migration corridor linking pristine cold-water streams in central Idaho to the mighty Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean. Scientists say restoring the lower Snake River by taking out these four dams is the single best thing we can do to save the salmon.
Migrating past these dams is a killing field for salmon and steelhead and rising water temperatures caused by the slackwater reservoirs make the passage increasingly deadly. In 2015, some of the earliest and hottest weather on record produced warm river temperatures that killed more than 90% of all adult sockeye salmon returning to the Columbia Basin. In years since, state agencies have had to limit or cancel entire fishing seasons to protect the dwindling fish. This summer with its record-setting heat could be another generational disaster for Snake River salmon.
The current litigation challenges the most recent plan for dam operations, issued by the Trump administration in late 2020. This plan green-lights essentially the same operations the courts have consistently rejected for more than two decades and through a half dozen different failed plans.
Some $17 billion in rate-payer and tax-payer dollars has been spent on the multiple inadequate federal efforts to protect salmon under the previous illegal plans and not one species has recovered.
Independent researchers who have studied the economics of restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River and renewable power replacement options favor dam removal.