‘Breach Not An Option Now’: Murray On Snake Dams

Before the four Lower Snake River dams can be breached, their services and benefits must be replaced or mitigated for, but the status quo around their operations and impacts on the region’s salmon and steelhead is unviable as well.


So stated Washington US Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee as they today released their final report that outlines their findings and recommendations on the controversial subject.

Speaking to their “Joint Federal-State Process on Salmon Recovery,” Murray said that following research reviews, and discussions with stakeholders and tribes, “(It’s) clear that breach is not an option right now – while many mitigation measures exist, many require further analysis or are not possible to implement in the near-term. Importantly, the Pacific Northwest cannot delay its decarbonization goals as we confront the climate crisis. Key infrastructure and energy investments must be in place before we can seriously consider breach.”

“Still, specific salmon runs are struggling, and breach is an important option that could help save the salmon – and we cannot under any circumstances allow the extinction of salmon to come to pass,” she added.

The dams in question are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Southeast Washington between Tri-Cities and Clarkston.

Upstream, numerous Idaho Chinook and steelhead stocks are in danger of “functional extinction” and dams are the leading cause of mortality for springers, killing far more outmigrating smolts and returning adults than predatory fish, birds, seals and sea lions, or are caught in fisheries on the Pacific and in the Snake and Columbia.


In early 2021, Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, after months of shopping the idea around, proposed a comprehensive $33.5 billion plan to breach the four Lower Snake dams, replace their services such as shipping and hydropower, and more. It sparked a conversation that today was in effect answered by Washington’s senior Democrats.

Murray did state that it’s “critical” the powers that be – from local and state government up to tribal nations and the feds – “immediately pursue interventions and implement policies that will protect salmon populations.”

“In the coming years, local, state, and federal partners must work together to invest in the communities and industries that rely upon the dams – the onus should not be on the Tribes who have borne the brunt of salmon declines as a result of the dams being built,” the senator said.

She added that mitigating the quartet “will require several urgent undertakings: we need to do a lot more to transition to clean and renewable energy sources, we have to invest in the region’s infrastructure to lower the cost of shipping goods to market, and we have to invest in water infrastructure and irrigation to support our producers in the face of a worsening climate crisis.”


Even as some anglers and activists will be disappointed that the final report from Murray and Inslee doesn’t recommend immediately shoveling out the earthen portions of the four dams – a move that would require Congresssional approval – it had Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association rolling up her sleeves ready to get to work in other ways.

“NSIA will be forever grateful to leadership that recognizes that for fish and the fishing industry to succeed, we all must succeed,” said Hamilton, the Portland-area organization’s executive director. “Our industry has paid the price for the decimation of Snake River stocks, and we are eager to get to work with other leaders in the region to modernize our power, irrigation and transportation systems. Leadership that brings us together for solutions will bring salmon, steelhead and our industry back from the brink. But we need to start today in order to preserve these iconic fish runs and the communities that depend upon them.”

In a press release later in the afternoon, the National Wildlife Federation considered the report to be a “roadmap for dam removal, to prevent salmon extinction, strengthen Northwest economies.”

Having worked this long game for a long while, Hamilton pointed out a key quote from the two Washington officials’ recommendation:

“Extinction of salmon, orca, and other iconic species in the Pacific Northwest is categorically unacceptable to us, and we will not permit Washington state to lose its salmon. We must move forward in a way that restores our salmon populations and acknowledges and redresses the harms to Tribes while responsibly charting the course to an energy and economic future for Washington state and the region. It is for these reasons that we previously stated that breaching of the Lower Snake River Dams should be an option, and why we believe, at the conclusion of this Process, that it must be an option we strive to make viable.”

On another related front, earlier this month, federal, state, tribal and NGO parties to a long-running lawsuit over federal Columbia River system hydropower operations agreed to another stay of litigation so they can continue working toward a long-term solution that recovers the region’s salmon and steelhead and more.