How a Long-Shot Push to Remove Dams to Protect Wild Salmon Is Gaining Traction

Two powerful Democrats from the Pacific Northwest are launching a formal review to study the possibility of removing four hydropower dams currently in the path of wild salmon migrating between the Pacific Ocean and breeding grounds in Idaho’s high mountain streams.

In an escalation of the fight over breaching the dams to save the salmon, Washington governor Jay Inslee and the state’s senior senator Patty Murray, both Democrats, announced on Friday they are launching a process involving both Washington state and the federal government to propose ways to replace the benefits the four lower Snake River dams provide, should the dams be broken open to help save wild salmon in those waters.
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Built and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers of Washington, the dams provide low-carbon, reliable energy for the Pacific Northwest. They also make it possible to transport grain from Pacific ports. TIME recently reported that they come with a significant ecological cost, and have affected tribal traditions, which rely on the wild salmon swimming in rivers.

Only 20% of wild salmon are capable to swim in rivers above dams. They aren’t breeding fast enough to support their populations, and could disappear from streams entirely. Wild salmon make up only 20% of the rivers that run above dams. They breed on the stream bed and are not raised in human-run hatcheries. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on improving fish ladders, hatchery programs, trucking and barging fish to get around the dam system, but it hasn’t been enough.

The issue has brought together an unlikely coalition of tribal leaders who have been pushing for decades in court for the dams’ removal, sports fishing organizations, river conservation groups, and a conservative Republican congressman from Idaho who created a $33 billion spending proposal to replace the benefits the dams provide with rail and low-carbon energy investments. These allies are yet to convince Democrats or the Biden White House to include a proposal to remove dams in their bipartisan infrastructure bill. This bill has passed the Senate, but remains stalled in Congress as Democrats fight over details of its accompanying spending climate bill and social programs.

Learn More Fight to Save the Salmon

Governor Inslee and Sen. Murray are both approaching the question of whether large sections of the dams should be removed to help wild salmon with “open minds and without a predetermined decision,” the leaders said in a statement they put out together on Friday. “We recognize the urgency of tackling this long standing challenge as salmon runs continue to decline,” Inslee and Murray said. The two want to know if there are “reasonable means” to replace the benefits the dams currently provide and whether those steps would be “sufficient to support breach” of the dams as part of a strategy to recover wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

These leaders plan to publish their recommendations by July 2022. “Every community in the Pacific Northwest knows the value and importance of our iconic salmon runs—the time is now to take decisive action,” Inslee and Murray said.

Inslee will employ experts to review and collect data and scientific research to reach a final conclusion. These two leaders will speak to the Pacific Northwest communities and consult with sovereign tribes, which have made treaties to protect their rights to wild salmon and the livelihood of farmers and other users of the dam system. They also welcome written feedback from the public.

Murray plans to make use of her position as senior senator to the Senate Appropriations Committee in order to press Congress into including a requirement for the Army Corps of Engineers to study breaches of dams within a pending funding bill. This study is usually required before the Army Corps takes any major actions. Murray will lobby for the inclusion of this provision in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act. It is a vital bill that’s introduced every two years to help fund projects by the Army Corps.

“As Governor Inslee and Senator Murray work to provide recommendations for a salmon recovery strategy, this legislative action will importantly ensure that breaching remains on the table,” the statement said.


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