In June 2019, Idaho Governor Brad Little convened his Salmon Workgroup for the first time, setting members on a mission to develop consensus policy recommendations to restore abundant, sustainable, and well-distributed populations of salmon and steelhead to Idaho. Recommendations are expected at the end of the year, but an existing agreement may become an obstacle for their implementation, making the Workgroup’s proposals unfeasible before they’re complete. 

Since 2008, Idaho has been party to an agreement called the Columbia Basin Fish Accords. The Accords were composed by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation in an effort to stop the cycle of lawsuits that handcuffed the region since the early 1990s. The agencies’ objective was a truce between the Northwest states and Tribes and the federal government, which operates the dams. Each Tribe or state signed its own version of the Accords, though not all joined. 

In return for an agreement to not pursue litigation over the Columbia River System of hydroelectric dams, states and Tribes would receive guaranteed funds for projects related to endangered salmon, steelhead and lamprey. These guarantees provided certainty for Idaho’s longer-term projects like multi-year studies, habitat restoration in the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi River regions, and a hatchery program for the critically endangered Snake River sockeye run. States and Tribes were already receiving funds from the agencies, who are legally required to mitigate for the effects of the dams. Those who didn’t sign on to the Accords, like the State of Oregon, continued to receive millions of dollars while not compromising their rights. 

Of course, the Accords didn’t stop the cycle of litigation: the Nez Perce Tribe and Oregon refused to sign on, and their lawsuit against the federal government in 2016 was successful. That victory forced the federal government to study the system for a sixth time, resulting in the recently released Columbia River Systems Operations Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which ICL also believes to be deficient and illegal

The release of the EIS, however, is an end to the current version of the Accords so they’ll expire at the end of September. Negotiations on an extension are already underway and senior staff in Idaho’s state government are expected to provide a progress report at the next Governor’s Salmon Workgroup meeting in late August. It’s imperative that Governor Little waits to sign any extension; here’s why: 

  • Signing onto the Fish Accords would preempt the Governor’s own Salmon Workgroup and may run counter to its recommendations. The Workgroup is in the middle of creating and agreeing to a wide swathe of policies, programs, and projects. Many of these require funding or the State of Idaho to sue on behalf of its wild fish. Gov. Little brought this group together to form holistic solutions that do everything possible to save the species. If he were to sign an extension, those solutions might no longer be possible. 
  • Negotiations between the State and federal agencies should occur in an open and transparent manner. For too long, the fate of salmon and steelhead in Idaho has been controlled by government bureaucrats and the court system. These fish are the lifeblood of river towns across Idaho: entire communities and industries depend on them, to say nothing of Native American Tribes whose entire cultural history is based on salmon. Any agreement should consider those Idahoans whose lives and livelihoods depend on fish that are on the verge of extinction. The governor has assembled many representatives of these groups in his Workgroup; he should listen to their perspectives. 
  • The Accords are a muzzle on Idaho and aren’t needed for continued support from the federal government. Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe never signed the Accords and still received funding from BPA’s Fish and Wildlife Program. From 2008 to 2018, Oregon received about $158 million, which is comparable to Idaho’s $174 million in that same time. The Nez Perce Tribe alone received more than $178 million. Oregon and the Nez Perce maintained their freedom to fight, were still able to complete important habitat and hatchery work, and received funds because BPA is required to distribute these funds. Washington exited the Accords in 2018, and now has the freedom to regulate water temperatures on the lower Snake River, which could lead to breaching of dams there. At the same time, Washington’s funding from BPA increased after leaving the Accords. Idaho has excellent fish biologists whose studies demonstrate how damaging dams are to salmon and steelhead. Thanks to the Accords, these voices cannot advocate for meaningful solutions. 

The Columbia Basin Fish Accords are a fishy deal for Idaho: guaranteed funding is a benefit to the State, but at what cost? If it perpetuates our fish’s slow sink toward extinction and silences the State’s scientific community, the money is of little use. Gov. Little and his staff should consider that carefully.