Nearly a year after Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA) commenced an investigation of breaching the lower Snake River dams, the officials released a final report and set of recommendations on the dams’ future. The report not only focused on the dams’ services and how they could be replaced, but also on the dams’ impact on fish, orcas, and Northwest communities. Building on these results, Murray and Inslee committed themselves to fully replacing the dams’ services and moving toward dam breaching. 

ICL has long advocated for breaching these dams in an effort to restore abundant populations of wild salmon and steelhead. During the process, we worked with our partner organizations and indigenous Tribes to inform the Murray-Inslee report. Now, we see the results of that work. 

Highlights from the recommendations:
  • The federal and state governments should move forward with a program to replace the benefits provided by the Lower Snake River Dams, consistent with the Pacific Northwest’s clean energy requirements and decarbonization future, so that breaching of the Lower Snake River Dams is a pathway that can be credibly considered by policymakers in the future.”
  • “Some assert that energy scarcity and environmental calamity are inevitable results of changing our approach to hydropower on the Lower Snake River Dams, and that doing so will derail the Pacific Northwest’s decarbonization goals as we confront the climate crisis. We believe that is an oversimplified binary choice, and it is one that we do not accept or see as inevitable.”
  • “The science is clear that – specific to the Lower Snake River – breach of the dams would provide the greatest benefit to the salmon.
  • “Extinction of salmon, orca, and other iconic species in the Pacific Northwest is categorically unacceptable to us, and we will not permit Washington state to lose its salmon.”

Murray and Inslee laid out several ways in which they will seek federal and state funding to begin replacement and forestall extinction of salmon in the meantime. Specifically, Governor Inslee will focus on streamlining the process for energy project siting to speed development of these resources. He will also carry out a detailed transportation analysis of what changes must be made to existing infrastructure to shift wheat transport from barges to trains. Senator Murray will work with other Northwest leaders to secure funding from Congress in support of new infrastructure. Much of this funding was made available in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation. 

The final report, which was published as a draft in June before a public comment period, maintained its core themes. The report finds that all the dams’ services in energy, transportation, and irrigation can be fully replaced or even improved upon. It also finds that fishing communities and indigenous Tribes have suffered greatly due to the decline of salmon in the Northwest. Breaching the lower Snake River dams is the single most effective step in restoring these fish to abundance. 

What’s next?

These recommendations are encouraging, but they lack urgency. Murray and Inslee must follow this announcement with sure steps and a concrete timeline toward dam breaching and restoration of the lower Snake River. The 2021 Columbia Basin Initiative from Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) planned for dam breaching in 2030 and 2031. At the current pace of energy development and infrastructure improvement across the country, there’s no reason to wait any longer. 

For now, it’s important to recognize Murray and Inslee for the progress they’ve made. Following in the footsteps of Simpson, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR), two more elected leaders have recognized a broken system for what it is and decided the lower Snake River dams must be removed to fix it. It’s time for other Northwest officials to do the same. 

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