Over the many years I have engaged with stakeholders and tribal partners about a path forward in the Columbia Basin, one thing is clear: The status quo isn’t working. Iconic salmon and steelhead stocks continue to decline, with several now on the brink of extinction. As we know, extinction is irreversible. However, there is still time for a collaborative solution that will benefit all in the region.
The Columbia and Snake rivers are economic drivers that we have developed for local and regional prosperity. Salmon and steelhead are keystone species critical to the region’s ecosystem and the economy, as well as subsistence and cultural health for tribal peoples who have fished the rivers since time immemorial.
I know that abundant salmon and steelhead populations can coexist with a robust, growing regional economy that includes affordable and renewable power, water for agriculture, and affordable transportation of goods to regional and international markets, while being respectful of Tribal culture, history and treaty rights. But, if action does not come swiftly, the losses will be substantial and irreversible.
Decades of development, including the mainstem dams and reservoirs placed between critical alpine nursery areas and ocean feeding grounds, have had devastating impacts on wild salmon and steelhead. For nearly 30 years, these species have remained listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Now, the climate crisis is compounding those impacts through warmer waters, lower river flows and deteriorating ocean conditions.
Through it all, the federal agencies responsible for operating dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers have continuously failed to meet the minimum needs of the fish required by the ESA.
This is not a time for entrenched thinking or political ideology. I was one of the first lawmakers to offer my support when Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson proposed $33 billion in economic investment to help ensure a healthy future for the Columbia Basin while respecting the history, culture and rights of the region’s Tribal people.
Simpson’s proposal reflects the clear science: Removal of the Snake River dams must be part of a comprehensive solution for salmon and steelhead in the face of climate change. His proposal also recognizes that the dams cannot be removed without first replacing the essential services they provide, investing most of the $33 billion in the energy, agriculture and commodity transport sectors, and calls for a moratorium on litigation.
In addition, just over a year ago, I partnered with the governors of Idaho, Washington and Montana to launch the Columbia Basin Collaborative, aimed at working toward robust goals for salmon and steelhead while also ensuring regional prosperity. We hope to have the Collaborative chartered and funded this year so it can begin its work in earnest in 2022.
If it were up to me, none of this would have to be decided in court. Unfortunately, that was not a view shared by the Trump administration or the federal agencies in charge of dam operations. Oregon, along with other plaintiffs, is in litigation over Trump-era rules that are unlawful, as well as the federal plan for dam operations that is inadequate to protect salmon and steelhead.
Before we took this step, while the federal government completed its plan, Oregon helped negotiate the interim period of litigation-free dam operations and good faith, providing constructive input throughout the process, all in hopes that federal agencies would bring forward a legal plan. They did not.
This federal failure left us with no recourse but to ask the courts to intervene to remove the Trump-era rules and inadequate federal plan, and help the region pivot toward a comprehensive solution. Absent comprehensive federal legislation and funding, or a timely and collaborative regional solution, legal action is currently the only avenue available to help address these issues.
It is my fervent hope that the Biden-Harris administration will take steps to reverse the Trump-era rollbacks to environmental stewardship, including this latest federal plan for dam operations, so that we can get all parties back to the table to develop a lasting solution.
While this litigation plays out, Oregon will continue to seek and pursue all opportunities for collaboration. One possible path would be for Congress to fully fund Simpson’s proposal and provide the Tribes, Northwest states and key regional stakeholders with time to work with their congressional delegations to develop legislation to implement it. This is not the time for hesitancy. I respectfully ask my fellow leaders in the region: If not Simpson’s proposal, then what? If not now, then when?
My priority is to ensure we have robust, harvestable salmon and steelhead populations throughout the Columbia Basin for generations to come. We can do so in a manner that combats climate change with growth in clean and renewable energy, ensures a cost-effective irrigation system for farmers and ranchers, invests in safe and economical transport of goods and secures vibrant recreation opportunities in and throughout the Columbia Basin. It won’t be easy. But it’s the only way to ensure a vibrant future for the region.
I’m ready to sit down with anyone willing to work with me to make that future a reality. Let’s get it done.