Native peoples in the Northwest have known since time immemorial that the wealth of this region is in our rivers and fish, and the vast ecosystems they support. Their health is the region’s wealth.

But while that has been clear forever, that does not mean it will continue forever. Columbia Basin salmon are headed toward extinction — unless we, our elected officials and all stakeholders take immediate, bold action.

Our tribes — the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe — are First Foods people. Our food, and especially the salmon, is essential to our culture, health, religion, economy, our stewardship of land and water, our history.

And our future.

The future of the Lower Snake River Dams: Draft report makes a poor case, economically, for breaching

When our ancestors signed treaties with the United States government in the 1850s, one of our most critical guarantees was the right to fish forever. At that time, the Columbia River basin teemed with more than 17 million fish each year.

Now the returns are nearly gone. Over the last five years, fewer than 8,000 wild spring chinook salmon have returned to the Snake River on average. Forty-two percent of the spring chinook populations in the Snake River basin, a vast mountainous area with the best habitat remaining in the Columbia Basin, have had fewer than 50 fish on the spawning grounds for four consecutive years, a threshold level of functional extinction. And with climate change, there are even more challenges and fewer fish. As with the salmon, the orca that rely on them for food are also in crisis. There are fewer than 75 southern resident orca left.

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This is also the history of a national-level environmental and tribal injustice. The Columbia Basin federal dams for 90 years have been built and operated on the homelands, waters and fisheries of Northwest tribes. That is not merely an unjust “past.” It is occurring today and every day. The system has been to the enormous benefit of the 14 million people who now call the Northwest home but has come at a terrible, disproportionate cost for our people, our cultures and our treaty-reserved resources, including the salmon.

Northwest leaders already have taken steps to aid salmon recovery. Idaho’s U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson’s Columbia Basin Salmon Recovery Initiative has set the framework for a comprehensive approach: restoring the Lower Snake River corridor, reintroducing salmon in the Upper Columbia and Upper Snake basins, and making a significant new investment in fish and wildlife actions implemented by tribal and state managers, while intensively investing in all sectors that rely on the services of the dams. Washington’s U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell included $2.8 billion in the infrastructure bill for ecosystem restoration and improved fish passage throughout the region.

We applaud and thank Sen Cantwell for her leadership in taking those steps. To restore healthy salmon runs, however, we’ll need to do more, and other leaders are joining Sen. Cantwell to address the urgent plight of Columbia Basin salmon, steelhead and the orca they support.  

Washington’s U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee have issued a draft report that analyzes the feasibility of replacing the services of the Lower Snake River Dams: keeping power rates affordable and supporting our agricultural, energy and transportation sectors as well local economies. This is an important departure from the all-or-nothing debate between pro- and anti-dam interests over the past 20 years. 

The Murray-Inslee process can create a path that both recovers salmon and enhances our agricultural, transportation, energy and local economies. Tribes are part of those economies too. For example, some of our tribes have tribal farm enterprises that export wheat alongside nontribal farmers.

Our tribes are committed to options that keep our economy whole, from agriculture to transportation, tourism, recreation and affordable power prices. 

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With respect to the energy produced by the Lower Snake River Dams, there is now ample and growing evidence that the Northwest can replace that service with other clean energy technologies. That’s important for communities that rely on the energy. They’ll also benefit from the jobs that ramping up new energy sources will bring. And because any new sources will be clean, they’ll also help our region mitigate the effects of climate change. It is also clear that trucks and rail can replace barges by transporting grain to the large ocean ports or alternatively to the Tri-Cities area where the product could then be placed on barges, for the remainder of the trip below the Lower Snake River Dams. This action would simultaneously create many good paying jobs in the Tri-Cities.  

As stewards of Northwest land and water, we see a great opportunity before the region. The federal government appears committed to finding a solution. As senior officials for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the Departments of the Interior, Energy, Army, and Commerce recently jointly stated, “We cannot continue doing business as usual. Doing the right thing for salmon, Tribal nations, and communities can bring us together. It is time for effective, creative solutions.”

We urge our Northwest elected officials to keep an open mind to the options identified in the Murray-Inslee process and to working with all of the Columbia Basin stakeholders on creative solutions. While breach of the Lower Snake River Dams is an essential component, any basin-wide recovery plan must also examine flows, habitat and other issues and must be comprehensive enough to ensure the salmon survive for those generations yet unborn.

The debate over dams has persisted for decades. However, we believe this is a singular opportunity to find lasting solutions that fulfill the treaty obligations while providing benefits for everyone in the region. This is a moment of historical urgency and importance. The Columbia Basin Tribes, which are recognized fish and wildlife co-managers in the Basin, are prepared to meet with all stakeholders and sectors to ensure a long-term, win-win situation so that abundant salmon are here for the next seven generations.