Reports released last week by the Biden administration demonstrate a firm grasp of the obvious.
“Business as usual will not restore salmon,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “The Columbia River system is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest.”
Residents throughout the Northwest are well aware of these issues. Salmon runs have been declining for decades, despite an estimated $17 billion in federal spending on preservation measures. And salmon along the Columbia and Snake rivers have influenced the region’s culture for millennia.
This is not meant to mock the substance of the White House report or to downplay the importance of federal attention to salmon retention. It is, instead, meant to reinforce the notion that actions speak louder than words.
With previous measures to preserve salmon populations having limited success at best, the possibility of removing four dams along the lower Snake River has been gaining momentum. Environmentalists say the dams have disrupted salmon runs, preventing fish from returning to native spawning grounds. There also are concerns about diminishing orca populations, with the orca relying on salmon for sustenance.
But the dams also provide benefits. Hydropower is essential to the Northwest way of life, and the structures provide flood mitigation, enhance river navigation, and supply irrigation for crops east of the Cascades. Removing them would present economic and logistical issues.
As the Associated Press reports, removal of the dams would be the largest such project in U.S. history. When the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula was removed in 2012, the National Park Service said that was the largest project of its kind to that point.
Officials stress that the Biden administration is not endorsing a particular solution. A draft report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says changes are needed to restore salmon, ranging from removal of one to four dams on the lower Snake River. A second report looks at replacing power production if the dams are breached.
“These two reports add to the picture . . . of what it will take over the decades ahead to restore salmon populations, honor our commitments to Tribal Nations, deliver clean power and meet the many needs of stakeholders across the region,” Mallory said.
A statement from several congressional members, including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said: “They are cherry picking points to justify breaching the Lower Snake River Dams, which will permanently and negatively impact our way of life in the Pacific Northwest.”
Such concerns must be examined and weighed. But at this point, local residents are feeling all studied out.
The draft of a report sought by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee was released last month. Numerous other reports have been issued, going back decades. And U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has introduced legislation that was three years in the making, asking for $34 billion to remove the dams and replace the benefits they provide.
Despite all the studying and all the reports, we remain in need of solutions. Salmon runs continue to decline, orca populations remain endangered, and a whole lot of discussion has resulted in little more than well-meaning gestures.
The latest report is right about at least one thing: Business as usual will not save salmon for our region. Serious action is necessary, and it is needed soon.