U.S. Government Sets a Path to Breach the Four Lower Snake River Dams

The Biden administration commits considerable federal resources to support the restoration of native fish populations and prepare for dam breaching


Elizabeth Manning, Communications, Earthjustice, emanning@earthjustice.org, (907) 277-2555

Amanda Goodin, Senior Attorney, Earthjustice, agoodin@earthjustice.org

Jacqueline Koch, Communications, National Wildlife Federation, (206) 687-8546

Bill Arthur, Columbia Basin Salmon Campaign Director, Sierra Club, (206) 954-9826

Liz Hamilton, Executive Director, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, (503) 704-1772

Glen Spain, Executive Director, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), fish1ifr@aol.com, (541) 689-2000

An agreement to restore the Columbia Basin announced today by the White House, the States of Oregon and Washington and four Columbia Basin tribes marks a turning point in the long-standing effort to protect and restore Snake River salmon, an iconic Pacific Northwest species that could face extinction without action.

Based on a Tribal-state initiative backed by federal commitments, a coalition of fishing, conservation, and renewable energy groups, represented by Earthjustice in a lawsuit, have agreed, with the Biden administration, the states of Oregon and Washington and Nez Perce, Yakama, Warm Springs, and Umatilla Tribes, to seek a multi-year pause in Snake River litigation. The long-term litigation pause would allow for implementation of federal commitments supporting a groundbreaking new initiative advancing the recovery of salmon, steelhead and other Native fish populations throughout the Columbia River Basin.

The new initiative, the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative (CBRI), developed by Washington, Oregon, and the four Columbia Basin Tribes,  provides a comprehensive new roadmap for salmon recovery, including a call to replace the energy, transportation, irrigation, and recreation services provided by the lower Snake River dams so they can be breached. The Biden administration is supporting the bold new blueprint with federal commitments and a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to continue working together on next steps.

The federal commitments will help accelerate the Pacific Northwest’s transition to truly clean energy by supporting new Tribal energy to replace the dams’ hydropower, providing regional economic opportunities and increasing resilience to climate change. Investments will be made to further habitat restoration, hatchery improvements, clean energy projects and planning, infrastructure improvements such as removing culverts and improving fish passage facilities, transportation, and more. New federal funding, detailed in this factsheet, totals more than a half billion dollars.

The CBRI explicitly calls for the services of the lower Snake River dams to be replaced and then the dams breached within two fish generations (approximately 8 years) to avoid extinction and begin rebuilding salmon populations to healthy and harvestable levels. The federal commitments do not include a decision to breach the dams, but do include a commitment to begin to replace their services and to work in partnership on next steps.

The CBRI and federal commitments signify a critical step forward toward honoring reserved federal Tribal Treaty obligations and recognizing the irreplaceable value salmon and other native fish hold for Tribes. The four Columbia Basin Tribes who developed the CBRI in collaboration with Oregon and Washington are the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe.

Both the CBRI and the federal commitments build on bipartisan efforts including the report and recommendations from a  joint federal-state process by Governor Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray, an earlier initiative by Rep. Mike Simpson, and funding allocated by the Washington Legislature last year to plan to replace and modernize transportation, irrigation and energy needs when the four lower Snake River dams are breached.

Earthjustice’s plaintiffs support the Biden administration commitments as a critical first step toward salmon recovery – and are committed to continuing to push for urgent action to rebuild imperiled fish populations, honor reserved Tribal treaty rights, and restore healthy ecosystems while supporting a robust Pacific Northwest economy.

The following statements are from Earthjustice and our plaintiffs:

“We are now on a path to breach the four Lower Snake River dams,” said Earthjustice Senior Attorney Amanda Goodin. “This marks a turning point in our decades-long litigation. Instead of attempting to defend yet another illegal dam operations plan in court, the Biden administration is setting a new course, following the science and the lead of the Tribes and States, to begin to replace the services of the Lower Snake River dams so that they can be breached.”

“Thanks to the leadership of Northwest Tribes, we have specific agreed upon actions that move the Northwest region one step closer to saving Columbia River salmon and steelhead runs,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The National Wildlife Federation is grateful that the Biden Administration has declared that salmon recovery is a government-wide priority and is willing to seize the solutions within our grasp to move us toward a future where abundant salmon populations and wildlife-responsible clean energy can coexist.”

“This salmon recovery blueprint developed by Tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington is what we must follow to prevent further extinctions and if we want our fishing industry to continue,” said Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association Executive Director Liz Hamilton. “The status of the fish now, and the reduced dam spill for fall Chinook, will demand decisive and bold action to prevent further declines. We intend to hold the Biden Administration to these commitments and will continue to fight to ensure this initiative is implemented.”

“Many billions of dollars and decades have been wasted by past federal administrations trying to undo the near-extinction disaster the four lower Snake River dams have inflicted on this once world-famous fishery,” commented Glen Spain, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), a major fishing industry trade association representing commercial salmon fishing families coastwide. “Ignoring the needs of the salmon has destroyed more than 25,000 fishing jobs supporting families in coastal communities from California to Alaska, with economic losses totaling nearly a billion dollars annually. This plan finally pulls us out of gridlock by focusing on true salmon restoration rather than continuing a blind march toward salmon extinctions.”

“This commitment sets the stage for replacing the energy services of the lower Snake River dams and puts BPA on notice to collaborate fully and rapidly modernize how the agency provides energy services to help restore Columbia and Snake River fish and meet regional climate goals,” said Nancy Hirsh, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition. “The regional energy need planning process is an exciting leverage of funds already committed by Washington state to develop an action plan for energy services replacement.”

“The four Lower Snake River dams must be breached, and commitments to Tribes honored,” said Sierra Club Snake/Columbia River Salmon Campaign Director Bill Arthur. “This agreement moves everyone forward together, with federal resources supporting the replacement of the dam’s services. It’s both a necessity and an opportunity for our region. We should seize it and work together to ensure it is effectively implemented.  We must move forward with the urgency necessary to meet the needs of the salmon, orca and communities and tribes that depend on them.”


Earthjustice has represented conservation, fishing and renewable energy groups in court battles for 30 years to protect threatened and endangered salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

During that time, three different federal judges have declared illegal six different federal dam operation plans because they illegally failed to protect endangered salmon. 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 litigation has been stayed since 2021 to allow the negotiations which resulted in this new direction.

Today’s court filing includes the package of federal actions and commitments, the CBRI, a Memorandum of Understanding establishing the continuing partnership on salmon recovery between the U.S. government, Tribes, states, and the non-government organization plaintiffs, and a request to the court for a multi-year stay of the litigation.

Earthjustice represents the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Northwest Energy Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, and Fly Fishers International. The Nez Perce Tribe and state of Oregon are also aligned with these groups in litigation. A broad group of supporters and advocates are pushing to restore the Snake River and save wild salmon.

An adult salmon navigates through the fish ladder counting room at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
An adult salmon navigates through the fish ladder counting room at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. (Brian Plonka for Earthjustice)

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