Chinook Fry

A new process to determine whether there are reasonable ways to replace the four lower Snake River dams was announced Oct. 22 in a joint statement by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

The announcement came a week after Inslee told Washington Conservation Voters at a luncheon about the plan being developed to analyze how to replace the four lower Snake River dams, indicating details would come later from Murray.

And it was made a day after parties agreed to pause litigation over Columbia River System Operations.

The Inslee-Murray process and the pause in litigation are both set to conclude on July 31, 2022.

"Today we are announcing a joint federal-state process to determine whether there are reasonable means for replacing the benefits provided by the Lower Snake River Dams, sufficient to support breach as part of a salmon recovery strategy for the Snake River and the Pacific Northwest," the statement says. "We approach this question with open minds and without a predetermined decision. Both of us believe that, for the region to move forward, the time has come to identify specific details for how the impact of breach can, or cannot, be mitigated."

In the announcement, Murray promised to work in Washington, D.C., to put key elements of a salmon recovery strategy in the fiscal year 2022 Water Resources Development Act, including any expert analysis by federal agencies on breaching. The biennial bill is the primary legislation that funds projects carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The announcement states the analysis would be needed in order to pursue a potential decision to breach the dams and the next opportunity for the analysis would be in 2024.

Their statement indicates that the joint federal-state process is separate from the Columbia Basin Collaborative, which will involve state, federal, tribal and stakeholder representation to develop a plan for salmon and steelhead recovery to healthy and harvestable levels throughout the basin.

Murray and Inslee say saving salmon is essential to the state's economy and cultural heritage, and that they plan to hear all voices in the region and take all options into consideration, including breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Between now and July, they intend to solicit views from across the Pacific Northwest, including close consultation with tribes, and discussions with individuals and groups with varied viewpoints.

"The Joint Federal-State Process is the mechanism that Senator Murray and Governor Inslee will utilize to inform their recommendation on whether the Lower Snake River Dams should be breached or retained," the statement says. "Consultant and expert support will be retained by the Governor's Office to help synthesize existing information regarding what is known about options to replace the benefits of the dams, if removed, and what remains unknown."

Formal mechanisms for the public to submit comments will be released later. Next July, the senator and governor plan to present their recommendations and begin the next steps.

At the Oct. 14 virtual luncheon with Washington Conservation Voters, Inslee said, "I believe the way to advance this discussion nationally, and in our state, is to have a rigorous, robust and fast assessment of how to replace those services if we breach those dams."

But he also stressed that in addition to the impediment posed by dams, salmon face many more difficulties throughout their life cycle that also must be addressed, especially the impacts from climate change.

"We ought to come up with a way of how to replace that relatively carbon-free electricity," Inslee said, continuing "We have to have a more vigorous response to climate change, and climate pollution, if we are going to save these salmon."

He also spoke about work that still needs to be done in the Washington Legislature to address climate change. "We do not have today a system in our state that will adequately reduce the carbon pollution that is killing these salmon," he said. "I do want to alert everyone, we have a lot of work to do in the next session of Legislature to make sure that our salmon plan is comprehensive—that we address the Snake, but also the whole life cycle including climate, and I hope everyone will be active in that discussion next January."

"The next step is for us to define how to replace the services of the Snake River dams if they are breached. We know that they are a salmon impediment. We know that the salmon are on the verge of extinction. And we also know that they do provide services upon which a lot of folks, and our economy, depends," he said.

The announcements were met with mixed reactions.

The Nez Perce Tribe welcomed the news, and the close consultation promised to tribes. In a press release, Nez Perce Executive Committee Chairman Samuel Penney called for a free-flowing lower Snake River to help counteract the impacts of climate change.

"This is a moment of crisis for the Northwest that tribes and their peoples have seen most clearly. Salmon are at a crisis. This crisis is plainly intertwined with climate change, and for tribes this is a critical time for the United States to address over 90 years of tribal and environmental injustice imposed by the Columbia Power System on tribes and their lands and waters. The Columbia Power System was literally constructed out of the rivers and reservations and homelands of 19 Columbia Basin tribes. When that destructive history is truly understood, the modesty of the present request is plain," he said

Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said in a news release that he's concerned about the focus on Snake River dams while massive Chinook declines are being seen throughout the Pacific coastal region.

"We're concerned that the Murray-Inslee announcement seems to reframe the issue of the lower Snake dams on whether their services can be replaced instead of whether they should be replaced," his statement said.

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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.