WASHINGTON — After decades of legal fighting over hydroelectric dams that have contributed to the depletion of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, the Biden administration is extending settlement talks with plaintiffs who hope the resolution they are seeking — removal of the dams — is near.
The federal government has been sued five times over its failed attempts to save salmon in the Columbia River basin, and for violating longstanding treaties with the Nez Perce, Yakama and Umatilla tribes. But now the Biden administration and others say that restoring the salmon population is an issue of tribal justice, as well as the only real solution.
Last month, the administration released a report on the feasibility of removing four dams on the lower Snake River to aid salmon recovery, and another on how the energy they produce could be replaced. The first report, conducted by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and released in draft form, found that sweeping changes are needed to restore salmon to fishable levels, including removing at least one and potentially all four dams on the lower Snake and reintroducing salmon to areas entirely blocked by the dams.
The Biden administration stopped short of endorsing the findings but said it was reviewing all of the information to determine long-term goals for the Columbia River basin. And earlier this month, the administration and plaintiffs in a related court case agreed to pause the litigation for a second year to continue working on “durable solutions” for restoring salmon runs while also tending to economic, energy and tribal needs.
Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, who long resisted any salmon recovery plan that included removing the four dams, joined Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a fellow Democrat, in commissioning a separate study released this summer. That study found removing the four dams was the most promising approach to salmon recovery.
Ms. Murray and Mr. Inslee have not yet taken a position on whether the hydropower dams should be removed, but the report concluded that it would require spending between $10.3 billion and $27.2 billion to replace the electricity generated by the dams, and to find other ways to ship grain from the region and provide irrigation water.
Ms. Murray is the most powerful Northwestern senator in Congress. But she will need the rest of the Democratic delegation to join her in support of salmon recovery efforts to turn the tide. The report states that removing dams would require congressional authorization, a funding strategy and a concrete timeline.
“What’s clear is that we need to support salmon recovery from every angle possible,” Ms. Murray said in a statement.
Before the dams were built, the Snake River ran wild through parts of Washington State, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, with nothing impeding adult salmon from swimming upstream to their spawning grounds or the young ones from making it to the Pacific Ocean.
The dams were built between 1957 and 1975 and now provide energy to millions of people in the Pacific Northwest. But they have shrunk the Chinook salmon population in the Columbia River basin of the Pacific Northwest, since the fish struggle to migrate and therefore reproduce.
In all, there are eight dams the salmon have to pass through during their migration. Each time, their chance of survival is reduced by 10 percent, according to Tucker Jones, the program manager for Ocean Salmon and Columbia River Fisheries at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The Snake River dams provide a very small portion of the power generated by the hydroelectric power system,” Mr. Jones said, “and have a disproportionate impact on the salmon population based on the energy you get back.”
Before the dams were built, about 50,000 Chinook salmon spawned during the spring and summer. The numbers have since drastically fallen, putting fishermen and tribes at risk of losing an important economic, nutritional and cultural resource.
Kat Brigham, the chairwoman of the board of trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said that all the stakeholders need to come together and find a long-term solution to the problem instead of continuing to throw billions at fixes that have not worked.
“Getting together and rebuilding our salmon for our children’s children is something that we need to do because salmon recovery is important to the survival of the Columbia River basin as a whole,” she said.
Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead trout are listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia River basin, an area that includes parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and British Columbia.
The salmon are critical to the ecosystem of the river basin, serving as a food source for animals as large as bears and as small as insects. They contribute to the survival of endangered orcas, which depend on eating Chinook in the winter and spring.
The Snake River dams are federally owned. They are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which denied tribes’ request to remove the dams in 2020. Federal courts have been critical of the corps and other federal agencies responsible for protecting the Chinook since 2001.
In 2016, Michael H. Simon, a federal judge in Oregon, ordered that a new plan be created to restore the species. He said previous conservation efforts by federal agencies had violated laws meant to protect the environment, endangered species and tribal sovereignty. He cited the Army Corps of Engineers’ refusal to even consider the tribes’ request to remove the dams from the lower Snake River.
Congress is likely the only other entity that can remove the hydroelectric dams.
Tribes and other salmon defenders have not given up their fight. They say the dams can be replaced with other energy sources, including wind power.
Fifteen tribes from the Columbia River basin entered into legally binding treaties with the United States in the mid-19th century. Those treaties reserved sovereign and inherent rights, including the right to fish at traditional locations, on and off reservation lands, and to protect fish at those locations.
The tribes have long called for the federal government and political leaders to honor their treaty rights by removing the four lower Snake River dams.
Instead, the government responded with multiple committees, bills and programs aimed at mitigating the dams’ impact on fish and the environment. But each attempt at a solution has failed to protect the salmon.
The salmon in the Pacific Northwest play a vital role in tourist and fishing economies, are a food source for many species of wildlife, and support thousands of commercial and fishing jobs.
“Unless swift, leading actions are taken, a lot of these fish are doomed for extinction,” said Samuel Penney, the chairman of the Nez Perce.
The lower Snake River dams do more than just generate energy; they also provide a significant economic benefit. Boats carry an average of 10 million tons of cargo valued at over $3 billion through the dam system each year. Forty percent of the nation’s wheat is transported through it.
American Rivers, a nonprofit focused on keeping river health, lists the Snake River as one of the country’s most endangered. Climate change and the dams are raising the temperature of the river, which can be deadly to fish, said Amy Souers Kober, a spokeswoman for the group.
“We really are at the moment where it’s decision time,” Ms. Kober said.
The Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged in 2020 that removing the dams would “provide a long-term benefit to species that spawn or rear in the main stream Snake River habitats.”
But it also said that “short-term adverse impacts to fish, riparian and wetland habitat in the Snake River and confluence of the Columbia River would occur,” due to the changes in the river’s depth and flow after removal.
The corps has said removing the dams, a clean energy source, would increase energy costs for nearby residents and increase greenhouse gas emissions from other power sources. It has also said it would be difficult to replace the dams quickly with other sources of green energy.
Representative Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Washington State, said removing the dams would affect his constituents economically more than any others living around the Columbia River basin.
“The bottom line is this: Breaching these dams will not help our salmon population improve and will only hurt the communities in Central Washington and the Pacific Northwest who rely upon them,” he said. “I truly think that there’s some disinformation and some misleading information happening here by focusing on the dams as being the root of the problem.”
But not every Republican in the region continues to oppose removing the dams. In May, Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho beat his primary opponent in a landslide after introducing a plan to remove the four dams and replace the services they provide to save salmon, at a cost of $34 billion.
His opponent favored keeping the dams.