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Pact to restore Columbia Basin salmon populations signed in White House ceremony

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(The Center Square) – The Biden White House on Friday hosted a signing ceremony of the Columbia Basin River Initiative that included the governors of Washington and Oregon and representatives from four regional tribal nations.

“The president’s signature … (has) moved the process forward in a significant, responsible, and feasible fashion,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement afterward. “Only through partnership can the dams’ benefits be replaced, new clean power be generated, salmon populations be restored, and the regional economy continue to grow.”

The pact aims to increase native salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River system, including the lower Snake River in eastern Washington where four federal hydroelectric dams are located.

The White House announced the Columbia Basin River Initiative on Dec. 14 along with a mediated proposal to pause decades-old litigation regarding the dams’ impact on salmon runs. Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon of Oregon issued a stay for up to 10 years while the restoration plan is implemented and assessed.

Critics say the proposal was crafted behind closed doors with many stakeholders excluded, including Northwest congressional members. They say calls to breach the four dams will cause significant economic harm to the region.

In contrast, Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called it a “historic agreement” that provides a new path to restoring the river system while providing new clean energy resources and meeting treaty obligations to tribal nations.

Mallory said it represents an “all-hands-on-deck” call for federal agencies to assist. Through the agreement, the Biden administration expects to spend an estimated $1 billion toward rehabilitating threatened or endangered native fish populations and funding the Department of Energy to assist tribes in developing one to three gigawatts of new clean power generation.

If that means solar and wind energy, dam supporters worry those cannot adequately replace the reliable on-demand electricity provided by the dams and that ratepayers’ electric bills will increase dramatically. Supporters also say breaching, if realized, will disrupt river barging of commodities between Idaho and Pacific ports, increase truck transportation and harmful carbon emissions, and adversely impact recreation, irrigation, and flood control.

Along with Inslee, taking part in Friday’s ceremony were other representatives of the “Six Sovereigns” – Gov. Tina Kotek of Oregon, Chairman Shannon Wheeler of the Nez Perce Tribe, Chairman Gerald Lewis of the Yakama Nation, Corinne Sams of the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and Jonathan Smith Sr. of the Confederate Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

“The Pacific Northwest is facing some complex and related problems,” said Lewis. “Columbia Basin salmon are dying from the impacts of human development on our rivers and our fishers have empty nets, and our homes have empty tables. Because historically, the federal government has not done enough to mitigate these impacts.”

Inslee referred to a joint report that he and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., commissioned in 2022. The report, said Inslee, concluded that salmon populations are on track for extinction and the dams must one day be breached to save them and protect the federally-guaranteed right of tribes to fish, but that the “enormous economic benefits of the dams must be replaced before the rivers run free.”

The report estimated those benefits range from $10 billion and $27 billion in value.

Two eastern Washington congressional members, Republican U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, have been sharply critical of both the Inslee and Biden administrations’ responses. Rodgers and Newhouse are among those who contend only Congress can approve breaching of the dams and that the facilities are unfairly blamed for salmon declines compared to other factors which include ocean warming, toxic tire chemicals washed into waterways, other pollution sources in the Puget Sound, overfishing, and wildlife predation of fish.

Members of Earthjustice, which has led Snake River litigation in federal court, attended Friday’s ceremony along with representatives from fishing and conservation interests it represents. They applauded the new agreement.

In a statement, the organization said the pact “begins the work to plan to replace the energy, transportation and irrigation services now provided by the four Lower Snake River dams to prepare for future dam breaching, if authorized.”

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