Lynne Terry and Bill Lucia

(Washington State Standard) A decades-long battle over dams in the Columbia River Basin had a breakthrough Thursday, as the Biden administration announced a deal with four tribes in the region and the states of Oregon and Washington that is meant to restore salmon and other fish runs while also looking at the possibility of eventually breaching four of the dams.

The settlement agreement calls for a 10-year pause in legal fighting that dates back to the 1990s. It also includes a promise – but not a guarantee – of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and other money for wild fish restoration in the Columbia River Basin over the next decade, along with support for clean energy production by the tribes, according to a White House statement.

Environmental groups described the agreement as “historic” and framed it as a major win.

While removing the four dams on the lower Snake River would require approval from Congress, Earthjustice is optimistic about their eventual demise. “We are now on a path to breach the four Lower Snake River dams,” Amanda Goodin, Earthjustice senior attorney, said in a statement.

Earthjustice said the agreement explicitly calls for lower Snake River dams to be replaced and breached within two fish generations, or about eight years, to rebuild salmon populations. The group added that while the federal commitments don’t include a decision to breach the dams, they do include a commitment to begin to replace the hydropower and services they provide and to work in partnership on other next steps.

Critics, including groups representing utilities, farmers, ports and others who rely on the dams for power, barging goods and irrigation, assailed the deal, saying it was negotiated in secret and neglected their interests.

“This proposal turns its back on over three million electricity customers as well as the farming, transportation, navigation, and economic needs of the region,” three of these groups – Northwest RiverPartners, the Public Power Council and the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association said in a joint statement.

“By purposely excluding our respective organizations from the negotiations, literally millions of Northwest residents were deprived of fair representation in this process,” they added.

At the heart of the issue are four Snake River dams that provide irrigation and emissions-free hydropower for nearby communities, but have also contributed to the near extinction of 13 salmon and steelhead populations that return to the Columbia Basin from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. The declines are hitting southern resident orcas off the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon that rely on salmon for food and are federally listed as endangered.

Environmental advocates, tribes and others have pushed to remove the four dams from the river to help the fish. Earthjustice, an environmental law group, has led litigation against five federal agencies, seeking changes to dam operations in the Columbia River Basin to help protect salmon.

Under the agreement, the Biden administration will conduct “or help fund studies of how the transportation, irrigation, and recreation services provided by the four Lower Snake River dams could be replaced, to help inform Congress should it consider authorizing dam breach in the future,” according to the White House.

State, environmental support

Earthjustice said the deal was a “turning point” in the long-standing effort to protect and restore salmon on the Snake River, a Columbia River tributary.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office issued a press release describing the pact as an “integral step in our collective work to prevent salmon extinction.”

“We know the status quo on the Snake River will not bring our salmon back,” Inslee added in an emailed statement. “The dams provide tremendous benefits and we must be in a good position to replace them before breaching is possible. Today’s agreement is great progress.”

Gov. Tina Kotek also issued a statement, hailing the agreement as “unprecedented.”

“The Pacific Northwest’s iconic salmon and steelhead are essential to our ecological and economic wealth, and a sacred part of tribal ceremonial, spiritual, and subsistence practices since time immemorial,” Kotek said. “The Columbia River treaty reserved tribes exemplify steadfast leadership in salmon restoration and stewardship, forging a strong partnership with our states in a shared commitment to comanaging this precious natural resource for generations to come.”

The four tribes who are part of the deal include the Confederated Tribes and Bands of 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. In negotiations, the tribes, along with the states of Oregon and Washington are referred to as the “six sovereigns.”

In late October, Earthjustice and a coalition that filed suit in 2021 against the five federal agencies that operate the four Snake River dams agreed to pause the litigation for 45 days to hash out an agreement. The deal means that lawsuit – against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Bonneville Power Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service – will be put on hold for years.

Earthjustice said in a release that suspending the litigation will give the parties time to develop clean energy to replace the hydropower produced by the Snake River dams while working to restore beleaguered fish runs.

“Investments will be made to further habitat restoration, hatchery improvements, clean energy projects and planning, infrastructure improvements such as removing culverts and improving fish passage facilities, transportation and more,” it said.

Investments of $1 billion

The White House said the deal, when combined with other funding the Biden administration anticipates delivering to the region, will pour more than $1 billion in new federal investments for wild fish restoration and clean energy projects into the Columbia River Basin over the next decade.

This includes $300 million from the Bonneville Power Administration to restore native fish runs and their habitats throughout the basin.

The agreement itself specifies it does not represent a “binding” commitment for all of the federal dollars it outlines for the projects but rather the White House’s intention.

“Some parts of the proposed initiative can and should be advanced by the president and federal agencies under existing authorities and appropriations. Other parts will require Congressional support through additional appropriations or legislation, or both,” the agreement said.

The agreement calls for supporting the development of tribally produced energy and adjusting federal dams to deliver a “net benefit” for some fish while maintaining electric grid reliability and safety, according to a White House fact sheet.

Another issue in the agreement is fish hatcheries.

Decades of studies show that the billions of dollars spent on salmon and steelhead hatchery programs and restoration projects in the Columbia River Basin have failed to support or boost native fish populations. In fact, they’ve contributed to their decline.

In a study released in August, an Oregon State University economics professor and biologist from the U.S. Geological Survey reviewed 50 years of data on native and hatchery salmon and steelhead runs from the Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks. The dam is the last of 14 on the Columbia River before it empties into the Pacific Ocean, and it is where many salmon and steelhead — both those born in hatcheries and in the wild — return to deposit their eggs after one to seven years in the ocean.

They found that while the number of salmon and steelhead born in hatcheries that return as adults has grown slightly, wild populations of salmon and steelhead have not, and in some cases they’re being hurt by the hatchery fish.

Oregon Capital Chronicle Reporter Alex Baumhardt contributed to this story.