Conversations around removing the Lower Snake River Dams (which have been ongoing since the dams were put in) have gained momentum at the federal level since Representative Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho stepped up for salmon in 2021. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act channeled monies into the Pacific Northwest that are already being applied to replace the dams' services.
Here in Northeast Oregon, we were inspired by a recent presentation by Shannon Wheeler, Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, and Kyle Smith of American Rivers at the Josephy Center.
Chairman Wheeler gave a compelling call to action, asking the US government to honor the trust agreement made to the Nez Perce in their treaty. The promise was as straightforward then as it is now: protect the Tribe’s right to hunt, fish, and gather on the land. The Tribe is currently in the process of releasing a film, Covenant of the Salmon People, that digs deep on the Tribe’s relationship with these fish, and their decades of leadership in salmon restoration — including, most recently, Tribal initiative Nimiipuu Energy, which aims to replace all the power generated by the dams with clean solar developed on Tribal lands across the West.
As we face collapsing salmon and steelhead runs in the region, it’s become clear that we must take bold action, and soon. If we succeed, there’s hope: the Snake River basin is forecasted to have 65% of the coldest, most climate-resilient stream habitats on the West Coast. We just need to make sure fish can access them.
The problem: 4 million wild salmon and steelhead once spawned in the Snake River Basin. Now, fewer than 60,000 wild fish return. All told, that’s 1.5% of their historic numbers, and the consequences are obvious: in Northeast Oregon alone, all of our once-strong salmon and steelhead populations are either threatened, endangered, or extirpated (locally extinct). These fish have enormous cultural, ecological, and socioeconomic value for all communities that depend on them. Tribes around the Columbia Basin retain treaty rights to fish for salmon and steelhead, which are an important First Food and integral to their ways of life. And these fish are at the center of a vibrant recreation economy here in Northeast Oregon that brings in over $12.2 million dollars per year.
While there are a variety of impacts affecting salmon and steelhead populations (habitat degradation, ocean conditions, historic overfishing), there is scientific consensus that the Lower Snake River Dams are damaging to the remaining fish runs, and must be removed.
The solution: Breach the Lower Snake River Dams. While this is not the “silver bullet” solution, it is a tremendous opportunity to remove barriers to incredibly high quality habitat that will be critical to the survival of salmon and steelhead in a climate-changed future. Northeast Oregon alone contains over 1,000 miles of perennial streams, many of which are cold high-value climate refugia for fish. This is likely why Northeast Oregon currently hosts ⅓ of the entire Snake River Steelhead population. Imagine what could happen if we made it easier for these fish to gain access to the millions of acres of high-quality habitat upstream.
While many communities around the Northwest rely on services the dams provide, all of these services (transportation, energy, irrigation) can be modified or replaced to make the river friendlier for salmon. Salmon don’t have the kinds of choices we do: what they require is a clean, cold river. And they don’t have that right now.
How you can take action:
Until July 3rd, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is soliciting public comments to inform their plan to restore Columbia Basin fisheries, honor federal obligations to Tribes, and ensure that the region’s clean energy future doesn’t come at the expense of its iconic salmon runs. You can send them a comment in support of breaching the dams HERE.
On Thursday, May 25 from 10:00am to 1:00pm there will be the third installment of public listening sessions on this issue. You can sign up to attend this listening session here (and speak, if you want)!
For more information, review our fact sheet about the Lower Snake River Dams and the impact they have on Northeast Oregon’s communities, environment, and economy.