The state of Oregon and Mid-Columbia Basin tribes put their weight behind breaching the four lower Snake River dams in Washington at a rally on Saturday.
“We’re going to succeed. I’m fully confident we’ll succeed or I wouldn’t be here,” Jim McKenna, natural resource policy advisor to Governor Kate Brown, told a crowd of 150 to 200 people as salmon pennants waved in a stiff but refreshing breeze that blew off the busy Willamette River in Portland.
McKenna said that with the science on dams settled, salmon and steelhead runs “in crisis” and the threat of climate change and water uncertainty growing, the era of study and debate is over and it’s time to act to reverse fish return declines, address social justice issues and figure out how to replace the services provided by Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite Dams.
For fellow speaker Kat Brigham of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, McKenna’s words amounted to a particularly poignant moment.
“I’ve waited for that speech from Oregon for decades. If it had been (said) 30 years ago, we’d be better off today,” she stated.
The conversation around breaching the quartet took off early last year when Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson floated a $33 billion proposal to recover salmon and steelhead, replace lost hydropower, and help farmers get their crops to market and communities adjust to the change.
Last weekend’s rally also came as a one-year stay on litigation around running the federal hydropower system – which the state of Oregon, Nez Perce Tribe and others have been involved in – wraps up at the end of July, and as Washington’s senior US Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee, both Democrats, earlier this month called for public comment on their report looking at the benefits of removing the dams and replacing their services.
What’s being billed as a “comprehensive regional salmon restoration plan” is slated for rollout by July 31.
The dams have made Lewiston and Clarkston seaports that barge wheat, soybeans, wood chips and other products down the Snake and Columbia to terminals in Portland, Vancouver and Kalama for further exporting. Others will argue the better dams to remove are those in Hells Canyon.
CTUIR’s Brigham spoke to a collaborative approach that goes beyond the Snake and would benefit all residents, tribal and nontribal alike.
“If we don’t look at the Columbia River Basin as a whole, who is going to win? None of us are going to win,” she said.
Jeremy Takala of the Yakama Nation and a member of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission acknowledged that removing the four lower Snake dams was a “scary” proposition but also one not to back away from.
“Let’s not be afraid of change,” Takala said to widespread applause.
The event at Portland’s Willamette Park brought together a very broad spectrum of people, from well-spoken young women of the Yakama Nation and CTUIR, to climate and orca activists, to vegans and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.
“Salmon are the beating heart of the Northwest’s iconic rivers and the foundation of so many of our communities. Northwest residents are serious about salmon recovery. Now it’s time for Northwest lawmakers to get serious about salmon recovery with us,” stated Liz Hamilton, NSIA’s executive director, in a press release.
Local salmon guide Bob Rees and Northwest angling icon Buzz Ramsey participated in the on-the-water portion of the rally, as fishing boats, tribal canoes, kayaks and other watercraft gathered on the Willamette to “celebrate the gift of wild salmon, which are rapidly declining.”
The basic argument around removing the lower Snake dams from a recreational angling viewpoint is that dams represent the single largest source of freshwater mortality for wild Chinook smolts, accounting for over 42 percent of deaths.
“Everything else is, relatively speaking, such a tiny piece of the overall puzzle,” Tucker Jones, ODFW’s Columbia River manager, said last year during a panel discussion on Snake River restoration.
With their ESA listing, inland spring Chinook runs constrain fisheries all the way from the mouth of the Columbia up into Idaho. This year’s return was robust enough that managers were able to add many more days on the water in May and June.
That’s great in the short term, but per a Nez Perce Tribe analysis released last year, the long-term trends are more grim, as 42-plus percent of the Snake River’s individual wild spring/summer Chinook stocks and nearly 20 percent of its steelhead runs have reached a quasi-extinction threshold.
Breaching the dams should not only help smolt outmigration, but more directly link the river to its cooler Idaho headwaters. The idea is to remove the earthen portion of the dams, leaving the concrete abutments in place, allowing the river to flow freely.
McKenna, of the Oregon Governor’s Office, said the Biden Administration also needs to address the $1 billion backlog in hatchery repairs and maintenance.
With the Snake dams producing just a “fraction” of the power on the energy grid, he pointed to “battery banks” being developed in California that already provide more megawatts, and he said the state was “pro-offshore wind.”
That, however, is seeing pushback from ocean fishing and coastal interests as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposes to allow windfarm developments in deep waters off Brookings and Coos Bay.
Meanwhile, those who attended Saturday’s rally on the Willamette were encouraged to lean on Washington’s politicians – who came to the game much later than Idaho’s and Oregon’s – in support of breaching.
Besides speeches and the flotilla, the event also featured the Four Directions tribal drum group, which opened and closed the speeches, and the painting of a banner with a sockeye motif.
And at the end of the festivities, those who stuck around held somewhere around 100 black umbrellas to form the shape of an orca alongside statements about undamming the Snake, stopping fish extinction and saving southern resident killer whales, which preferentially feed on Chinook including those headed up the Snake.