How to remove the four lower Snake River dams

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How to remove the four lower Snake River dams

What will it take to remove the four lower Snake River dams and restore access for salmon to, and from, 5,500 miles of spawning habitat? Will it require Congressional approval? A federal court order? Both would take many years, but the dams must be removed much sooner. Not only are the river’s ESA-protected salmon on the cusp of extinction, but those fish are desperately needed now to avoid extinction of the culturally unique and much beloved Southern Resident orcas.

Thankfully, the real answer is a much shorter route.

A panel discussion about the Elwha and the Snake rivers, called A Tale of Two Rivers, took place at the Burke Museum January 24th. Most likely all of the over 200 salmon and orca advocates in the room, including the panelists, saw the urgency to remove the Snake dams, but the only two options offered by the panel were either to ask our dysfunctional Congress for permission, or wait a decade or more for a new federal court order, which requires a new BiOp, and a new EIS, then new litigation, etc.

The panelists were two highly esteemed environment reporters for major newspapers. After opening remarks Palouse Tribe Chief Jessie Nighthawk spoke passionately about the failure of the government and the Army Corps to uphold treaty rights that promise salmon while his people suffer without them. One panelist answered: “The Army Corps has made it absolutely clear that they are not going to let those dams come down until Congress tells them to. So that means talking to your political leaders here in Washington and in Idaho, and Oregon, and Montana.”

The other panelist replied “We talk about how Congress is going to have to make the decision, well actually…this issue is squarely in the judiciary. So we’re in this process and it’s going to go on for several years, and that’s where you come in, because it is a public process and it’s absolutely your job to know where it is in the courts and to stay involved.”

A woman in the audience stated emphatically: “The Army Corps absolutely has the power to uphold treaty rights. I think they’re trying to put the focus on someone else, and for them to say that is really a slap in the face. They do have that power, and that’s just the truth.”

That authority was clearly stated in a January 2017 letter from then Assistant Secretary of the Army Ellen Darcy, who wrote: “the Army Corps is committed to following the guidance in the 2002 FR/EIS as a framework for its actions, which includes ongoing assessments as to the efficacy of the alternatives it has implemented to date; the results of those assessments will inform our next steps…” That 2002 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) still determines mitigation efforts, but after billions have been spent the salmon are still disappearing. Indeed, the EIS states that Alternative #4, breaching the dams, provides the only opportunity to recover Snake River salmon and steelhead, but it wasn’t chosen by the Corps.

Federal judges have reminded the Army Corps five times that they are required by the Endangered Species Act to cease harming endangered salmon to the verge of extinction. Tribal Treaty rights also demand salmon conservation. The Corps also has a fiduciary responsibility to fund only economically beneficial projects, but the four dams are losing money, returning only 15¢ for every $1 invested by taxpayers and ratepayers. Irrigators and grain shippers can stay in business with a tiny fraction of the money saved by dam removal.

When the panel ended we were left with two convoluted, confusing and disheartening paths to Snake River dam removal, both inaccurate and impossible to achieve in time to avoid extinction of endangered Snake River salmon and Southern Resident orcas. It is our responsibility to tell our political leaders to urge the Army Corps to proceed with dam removal immediately.

Howard Garrett