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Important agreement reached on Columbia Basin salmon recovery

Chinook salmon passing through the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River

On December 14th four Columbia Basin Tribes, a coalition of conservation and angling groups, and Oregon and Washington’s state governments reached an important agreement with the Biden administration on salmon recovery. This includes a renewed federal commitment to work with Tribes to honor treaty rights and a significant federal investment in laying the groundwork to remove the Lower Four Snake River Dams. 

While breaching the lower Snake River dams (LSRDs) is not a silver bullet, it’s one of the best things we can do to recover salmon and steelhead in our region. Northeast Oregon hosts over one thousand miles of Snake River tributaries, and returning fish runs once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Restoring the lower Snake, while ensuring a just transition for communities who currently depend on the dams, is one of the most important connectivity efforts happening in our region today. While this agreement is not perfect, it feels like a huge step in the right direction. 

Who is involved?

From policy to on-the-ground restoration work, the role of the Tribes in salmon recovery cannot be overstated. The same is true for this agreement – the Columbia Basin Tribes (the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Spring Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation) are central to it. The state governments of Oregon and Washington are also key partners, as well as a variety of conservation and angling groups that have been involved with litigation over salmon for decades.

What does this agreement mean?

As with many agreements with the federal government, the outcomes are tied to continued investment in these issues by whoever is in power (i.e. who is President and in Congress). The White House press release specifically says that the Administration “is not making a judgment on whether to breach the dams, nor does it have the authority to do so; that authority resides with Congress.” However, there are significant commitments in this agreement – financial and otherwise – that lay the groundwork for breaching the dams. 

Here are a few highlights:

  • The creation of the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative - the joint roadmap established by the Tribes and state governments. This document packs a lot into 34 pages, discussing everything from dam breaching to habitat restoration and predator control. 

  • A pause in litigation that’s been going on since the 1990s. 

  • Over a half billion dollars in federal funds for “habitat restoration/protection and hatchery improvements for salmon, steelhead, and other native fish and shellfish”. 

  • Funds for Tribally-owned clean energy projects to replace power coming from the LSRDs 

  • Funds for federal and state efforts to analyze how to replace the energy, transportation, recreation, and irrigation services provided by the dams.

  • Funds for a federal analysis of how dams have affected Treaty rights.


Where can I learn more?

The December 14 press release from Earthjustice, which represents the conservation and angling groups, is a good place to start. Their two-page factsheet on federal commitments is also a nice summary. Save Our Wild Salmon has also compiled a lot of information here

It's important to note that not all parties are happy with this agreement. Nez Perce Tribe Chair, Shannon Wheeler has said: "...we are placed last again, the fish are last, everybody else is made whole before we even get to take a step. Irrigators are ahead of us, transportation is ahead of us, even tourism is ahead of us." Read the full article here.

I’d recommend checking out the Nez Perce Tribe’s recently released documentary Covenant of the Salmon People. It’s beautifully made and puts a finer point on this issue. 


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