In the 1960s and 1970s, four dams were built along the Lower Snake River in Washington State. They were advertised as a source of cheap, clean energy. Some conservation groups and tribe members nearby said the dams would have a negative impact on the regional environment. Decades later, the controversy has come to a head as the Biden administration has agreed to work alongside those groups to develop a plan to save the fish.

“The importance of salmon to our people has dated back to our beginning,” Nez Perce Chairman Shannon Wheeler said. “I think that’s the relationship today that we’re here to speak for the salmon that have lost their voice.”

The Nez Perce tribe is one of four Columbia Basin tribes who have long relied on the salmon in the region.

“For them to be able to return to their native waters, where they originate from, there’s a way of life that’s associated to that,” Wheeler said.

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The Columbia River Basin covers parts of seven states and Canada. It once produced one of the largest salmon runs on earth.

“These native runs that have once numbered in the millions have been reduced to the thousands and sometimes less,” Wheeler said.

The Nez Perce Tribe and other groups have been part of an ongoing legal battle over the four dams built along the Snake River. The groups say those are the source of a declining salmon population. The Idaho Wildlife Federation is part of the broader Snake River coalition. Executive Director Brian Brooks said the fish runs in Idaho are nearly depleted.

“We have the Salmon River, a river that was named after the abundance of fish that used to come back to Idaho,” Brooks said. “Only Idaho’s fish are on an extinction trajectory and the only thing that our fish experience that none of the other tributaries do are the Snake River dams.”

The Snake River begins in Wyoming and flows northwest. Along the way it joins with the Salmon River before flowing into the Columbia River, which feeds into the Pacific Ocean. That’s where salmon spend most of their lives.

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Scenic overlook of Grand Teton Mountain Range from Snake River- mountains, blue sky, trees

“These fish used to get swept down to the ocean in a matter of days. Now that’s 40 days,” Brooks said. “When they come back up, they go through stress induced by the fish ladders. There are seals and sea lions. And there’s a number of issues compounded by the existence of the dams.”

After several years in the open ocean, the salmon return to where they were hatched by swimming upstream. For a fish born in Idaho’s Salmon River, it must get past eight dams.

“We have a five-star hotel waiting for these fish in the Frank Church Wilderness,” Brooks said. “It’s beautiful, clean habitat. And they cannot get here because of the impacts, the mortality caused by these lower Snake River dams.”

About half of the region relies on hydroelectricity for power.

“[The dams are] zero carbon and they’re available 24 seven. That’s pretty good. They’re low cost. They’ve been a key element of economic development in the Pacific Northwest for decades,” National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson said.

Several efforts have been put in place to help the salmon get past the dams. Engineers have built fish ladders, elevators and other passage facilities to help improve survival. Conservation groups say those have fallen short and removing the four Lower Snake River Dams is necessary to save the fish.

“If you look at salmon, steelhead runs on tributaries on the Columbia River that only have to go through 1, 2, 3 or 4 dams they’re doing fine. They fluctuate naturally up and down. That happens all the time,” Brooks said. “The very simple truth is that eight dams are simply too many dams for a fish to go through.”

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Earthjustice has represented a coalition of groups calling for dam removal for decades. Earthjustice first took legal action in 1992, challenging a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration report that determined the dams did not endanger the fish. They successfully got that determination overturned in 1994. Earthjustice continued the pressure over the years to get the dams removed. In 2021, they agreed to a pause to negotiate with the newly elected Biden Administration.

“In this case, out-of-court discussions open up opportunities to take a more comprehensive approach to issues related to protecting salmon than is available through litigation,” Earthjustice said in a statement to Fox. “One example is the development of a plan to replace the energy services now provided by Lower Snake River dams.”

In 2022, the Biden administration released a pair of studies concerning the Lower Snake River Dams. A new NOAA report looked into the environmental impact of the dams. It stated, “Sixteen stocks historically spawned above Bonneville Dam. Of those, four are now extinct, and seven are listed under the federal ESA [Endangered Species Act].”

The report ultimately recommended breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

“NOAA Fisheries recognizes that the important services the Lower Snake River dams provide would need to be replaced or otherwise offset before breaching could occur,” NOAA Fisheries West Coast Regional Administrator Jennifer Quan said at a congressional June field hearing held in Washington State. 

A Bonneville Power Administration [BPA] representative also testified at that hearing on the agency’s report that looked at replacement power for the four dams.

“Replacing these dams while meeting clean energy goals and maintaining system reliability is possible. But doing so comes at a substantial cost to the region and notes that emerging replacement technologies must first become commercially viable,” BPA’s John Harrison said.

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Scenic view of Salmon River and Sawtooth Mountains, trees

BPA operates the four Snake River dams. Those produce around 3,500 megawatts of total capacity. That’s enough to power more than 800,000 homes. If the dams were breached, and if replacing with just wind energy, Washington State would need to double the amount of turbines it currently has to make up for the hydropower losses. If using solar, it would need five times as many panels.

“What the Biden administration is saying will replace it with the renewable energy. That’s not the same. It’s not available 24 seven,” Matheson said. “You can’t replace always available hydrogenation with renewables and say that’s the same type of electric generation.”

The BPA report also found that carbon emissions would rise if the dams were removed. In a scenario looking at breaching in 2024, carbon emissions would rise by up to 25%, partly because there would not be enough time to replace the dams with clean resources. If breached in 2035, there would be more time to develop clean replacement energy, but emissions could still increase by 10%.

“If this administration values carbon free resources, why would they propose tearing down these dams?” Matheson said. “This would be a disaster for the Pacific Northwest in terms of what has been an extremely valuable electric supply for decades.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, D, released their own report on replacing the dams in 2022. It determined the proper infrastructure should be in place before the dams are removed.

“We do not have in place today the resources we need for both resiliency, for energy, or infrastructure, to be able to take them down now,” Murray said during a 2022 C-SPAN Senate Debate.

BPA is the Pacific Northwest’s largest high-voltage transmission provider and generates 28% of electric power in the region. Its territory includes parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

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Columbia river, trees, mountains in distance

“People in California are the ones that should be really worried about this because the Columbia Hydropower system has bailed California out many times when they’ve been in trouble,” Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., said.

Bentz and other republican lawmakers recently made public a White House draft that detailed the ongoing talks over removing the dams. It frequently sourced the 2022 NOAA report on the environmental impact of the dams. The lawmakers questioned if the administration was seeking dam removal and questioned why other scientific reports were not used.  

“It’s really become a political agenda rather than one that’s focused on the science and what’s best for the region,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said.

The dams are located in McMorris Rodgers’ district. She says she and other lawmakers have been left out of the discussions.

“We had not been included. We’ve been excluded actually. These have been secret negotiations taking place since 2021 behind closed doors. And many of the stakeholders, many of the people that I represent, whose livelihoods depend upon the Columbia River system have been excluded,” McMorris Rodgers said.

This week, the House Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries held a hearing on the details in the leaked draft. Representatives from NOAA and BPA declined to attend the hearing.

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“This mediation process has been the complete opposite of the meaningful public involvement warranted for such a far reaching and impactful plan for our region and our nation. We are frustrated,” Pacific Northwest Waterways Association Executive Director Neil Maunu testified during the hearing. “We could actually get behind a lot of what is in this document. But the rest, the parts that were negotiated in secret without proper stakeholder input, input from those of us who live and work in this region are showstoppers.”

Earthjustice tells Fox, “Extensive public comment has shaped thinking on this topic for decades. As discussions continue, all voices continue to be heard.”

“These leaked documents were drafted in early November and may not even reflect the current state of the negotiations,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) said. “I’d like to remind everyone that it is standard practice to have confidential mediations in these things called lawsuits. It happens all the time.”

The Idaho Wildlife Federation was not a party in Earthjustice’s lawsuit and was not included in the mediation. Brooks said there was not anything unusual about the process.

“It’s pretty bread and butter for litigation processes. If two of my neighbors sue each other, I have no right to weasel into to knowing what their confidential settlement talks might be,” Brooks said.

A new filing was released this week along with a new agreement between the coalition and the Biden administration. The Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative adds new federal funding totaling more than half a billion dollars, new commitments and another five-year legal pause through December 2028.

“It’s a pathway towards being able to do the necessary things that will allow breaching to occur,” Chairman Wheeler said after the announcement was released. “I think this is the opportunity that these commitments bring to the forefront so that we can have a healthy environment for fish to be able to move up and down and about the river like they’re supposed to.”

The new initiative explicitly calls for the energy the dams provide to be replaced, and then the dams breached within two fish generations or approximately eight years. 

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NOAA navy and sky blue logo and white bird in circle

“We need to diversify the energy grid as it is. We can kill several birds with one stone by replacing the dams, their power infrastructure, their transportation infrastructure and getting our fish back in the process,” Brooks said.

Similar to the memo – the new agreement frequently sources the 2022 NOAA study as evidence the dams need to go. It fails to mention Bonneville Power Administration’s report on replacing the hydropower.

“An agency will crank out a report in 2022, they’ll constantly refer back to their own report as though it’s somehow concrete and reliable,” Bentz said. “That report [NOAA’s] uses a standard of healthy and abundant numbers of fish that that standard has nothing to do with the Endangered Species Act.”

The NOAA study states it used Quasi-Extinction Thresholds to evaluate the populations’ risks of extinction. A NOAA report from 2009 looked at adding terms to define the levels of extinction for species in the Endangered Species Act. It states that quasi-extinction refers to a small population size that has not reached absolute extinction. It ultimately determined using “near-extinction” was more beneficial as “quasi-extinction” runs the risk of “introducing linguistic uncertainty.” It also notes that evaluating a species’ risk based on quasi-extinction “becomes relatively more difficult to predict the timing (or probability) of absolute extinction.”

“It’s not based on true science,” McMorris Rodgers said. “They just picked it out of the air. They’re saying, well, we want to restore healthy and abundant salmon runs. It sounds good, but that’s a completely new term that’s not based on the Endangered Species Act or what Congress has ever put into the law.”

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Even the 2022 NOAA report states some uncertainties as to whether demolishing the dams would increase the salmon population. It lists hurdles including pollution, climate change and the challenge to reintroduce the fish to areas that were once blocked.

“There’s a lot of studies have been done that show that the dams are not necessarily the cause of where we’ve had salmon declines,” Matheson said.

Some lawmakers say studies should be done elsewhere to look at why the salmon population has declined.

“What they’re really saying is that they don’t get money from ratepayers to look at the ocean and they can get about three quarters of $1 billion a year from ratepayers in the northwest to focus on the rivers,” Bentz said. “That’s politically more attractive to them. Sad because if you want to help the fish, you would be looking at the ocean.”

Even with President Biden’s commitments to removing the dams in the next eight years, congress would still need to approve the breach. It could become an election issue in the region as lawmakers consider what to do about the dams.   

“This is a long way from being done,” Matheson said. “We’ve got to hold people accountable on this because those dams are extremely valuable electric generation for a whole region of our country.”

Groups in favor of removal are optimistic it can be done and new clean energy can take the place of the dams.

“We came together to put somebody on the moon. We can do hard things and we can do we can solve this,” Brooks said. “Luckily, this is not hard. Fish just need a river and we can figure out a way to get energy in a way that doesn’t kill our fish.”

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