Oxbow Dam

Oxbow Dam.

A joint letter from the governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana signals the start of a new collaborative effort on salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia Basin, which will include consideration of removing the four lower Snake River dams.

Released Oct. 9 and signed by Govs. Jay Inslee, Kate Brown, Brad Little and Steve Bullock—the leaders, respectively, of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana—the letter pledges to advance the goals of the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force through a new public process.

It also acknowledges differences in how each state views the recently released Columbia River System Operations EIS and record of decision, which chose an alternative for managing 14 Columbia Basin dams that does not include breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

"Our respective states may view the adequacy of these documents differently, and as such, act on that assessment differently," the letter states. "However, regardless of those differences and separate from each state's recourse, we commit to this ongoing collaboration to help achieve the Partnership's abundance goals to uphold treaty rights, support state fishery and fishery-related objectives and river-dependent economies. We also recognize the relevance and importance of advancing state clean energy goals and the regional goal to ensure an efficient, reliable, and affordable energy system."

The letter does notmention the Snake River dams, nor does it pledge to resolve the decades-long issue over whether they should be removed. But it does note the governors have been urged by regional stakeholders to help recover harvestable salmon and steelhead populations while honoring tribal needs and strengthening communities that rely on the electricity and agricultural services of the region.

In an email to NW Fishletter, Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, said, "Given the rate at which salmon and steelhead numbers continue to drop, there is an urgent need for the states of the Columbia Basin to take action so we can ensure there are abundant and harvestable stocks for future generations."

"I think it's great that all the region's policy leaders are concerned about the best way to improve the region's salmon populations," Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, told NW Fishletter. "We want to make sure—whether it's the Columbia Basin Partnership, or the EIS or the governors—that they are really tethering their solutions to science, and looking past historic talking points to really look at what the driving factors are for survival."

Miller said more and more studies are pointing to climate change and ocean conditions as major reasons for salmon and steelhead declines. "We want them to be paying attention to these findings, because we think those findings should be driving the conversation."

A joint news release from eight conservation and fishing groups throughout the four states praised the agreement, saying it must be followed by urgent action by the states, tribes and members of Congress. "The Snake River's rising water temperatures threaten salmon, but our federal agencies are failing to act. It is more important than ever before that our elected leaders bring people together and restore a free-flowing Snake River to benefit wild salmon, orcas, Tribes, farmers and fishing communities," said Robb Krehbiel, a Defenders of Wildlife representative, in the news release.

Environmental groups have been talking about a collaborative effort for weeks, and urging members to sign petitions asking the governors for leadership in protecting and restoring Columbia Basin salmon, southern resident orcas and the communities that depend on them. Some groups, including Columbia Riverkeeper and Save Our Wild Salmon, say the only solution is to remove the dams.

Federal agencies, too, are aware of the effort.

In a Sept. 28 ceremony after the ROD was signed, officials acknowledged and welcomed the regional effort to improve salmon and steelhead returns.

"We understand at this point that the states are in the early stages of a regional-focused forum to address the wide range of issues related to the Columbia River basin," Lorri Gray, the Bureau of Reclamation's regional director for the Columbia-Pacific Northwest, said at the event. "The states' role in the management of the basin is important, and we look forward to their continued collaboration as we move forward, post-record of decision."

John Hairston, Bonneville Power Administration's interim administrator and CEO, added that his agency hopes the process is a catalyst for continued collaborations to improve conditions for fish and wildlife.

In the letter, governors commit to advancing the goals of the task force in a public process that will include the region's tribes, federal agencies and stakeholders.

Meeting since 2017, the task force was initiated by NOAA Fisheries' Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee. The group worked to develop quantitative goals for 24 stocks of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead, along with qualitative goals needed for recovery.

The task force completed those goals in March 2019, and has since worked to explore how those goals could be achieved. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council also adopted the task force's quantitative goals in its 2020 Addendum to the Fish and Wildlife Program.

The letter is defined as an agreement between the states "to define a future collaborative framework to analyze and discuss key issues related to salmon and steelhead with the purpose of increasing overall abundance."

It authorizes state representatives to work with others in the region to define that framework, which "should provide for broad-based participation, accountability and transparency, and full opportunity for analysis and discussion of key regional issues relating to salmon and steelhead abundance and opportunities for advancing Partnership objectives, both short term and long-range."

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.